At our Women Returners 'Back to Your Future' Conference, co-founder and CEO Julianne Miles MBE spoke about what led her to set up Women Returners and how the UK landscape for returners has changed over the last five years.
After her own 4-year career break to care for her young family, Julianne decided that she didn't want to return to her former career in corporate strategy and marketing. She found it difficult to decide what to do next and was disappointed to find that there was no support available to help her. In the end, she found her own way back by retraining as a Chartered Psychologist and setting up an occupational psychology practice.
As a sideline, Julianne began to help more and more friends and acquaintances who had taken career breaks and were unsure of what to do or how to get back to work. In 2012, together with Women Returners co-founder Katarina Gould (who stepped back to pursue other interests in 2016), she started this blog to support returners. The initial aim was to provide free online return to work advice and to spread positive success stories about returning to work.
Julianne and Katerina became increasingly frustrated by the structural difficulties that talented and experienced returners faced when trying to get back to work. The story was always the same - they were ignored or rejected out of hand when they applied for jobs through traditional recruitment processes, and had to find roles through their networks, to retrain or to take much lower-level positions.
In 2014, they had the ambitious goal of putting returners on the map for UK business. The idea was to introduce returner programmes to create bridges between employers who wanted to recruit talented and diverse professionals and returners looking to find satisfying work using their skills and experience. They also wanted to act as a voice and advocate for career returners within the Government and professional bodies.
"Our mission has always been to make career breaks a normal part of a 40 to 50 year career, and to remove the 'career break penalty'" Julianne told the Conference audience. "To do this we work with three different groups - individuals, organisations and the Government."
Julianne explained that, alongside their free Returner Network for individuals, Women Returners partners with employers to develop and support three main types of returner programme:
- Returnships - high level, paid 'professional internships', where returners do a job for three to six months with transition support provided by the organisation. At the end of the period, there is a very strong likelihood of a permanent role if it works for both sides. These have really taken off in the UK and now in Ireland, and are at the pioneer stage in mainland Europe,
- Supported hire programmes - bringing returners into a permanent role with transition support, and an understanding that there may be a short ramp-up period as a returner gets up to speed. The term 'supported hire' was coined by Women Returners in 2015.
- Returner training programme - a form of returner programme where people who have taken an extended break are retrained into a different field, such as tech or wealth management.
"Five years ago, we introduced the concept of the returnship into the UK and have broadened our offering from there," said Julianne. "I did think that employers might not be that interested. However, this has definitely not been the case! In 2014 there were 3 UK returner programmes, by 2018 over 70 employers ran them."
"Almost every day I get contacted by a new employer asking about returner programmes. The interest is growing and growing, and we're seeing a real change in attitudes generally. Employers are realising that this is a really strong pool of candidates and they are looking beyond the gap to the skills returners bring."
Julianne described how Women Returners has partnered with employers to develop programmes around England, Scotland and Ireland. Although the concentration remains in the South, activity in the Midlands and the North of England is building. There is still little happening in Mainland Europe but she hopes this will change over the next 5 years.
"I'm proud to say that returners are now firmly on the Government' agenda," said Julianne. "There's a returners unit within the Equalities Office, and last year we co-wrote best practice guidance for employers on returner programmes which is on GOV.UK."
"We're doing what we can to change the context," said Julianne, "but I want to ask you as returners to do your bit as well. Be positive, proactive and don't write yourself off! If you find yourself thinking 'I'm too old', 'It's too late', 'Nobody's going to want me' - push all those thoughts away. Listen to and gain support from the positive people in your life who can help you think about what you CAN bring. Remember - you are the same, competent professional that you were before you took your career break. You might be a bit out of practice, but it won't take long to get up to speed and to be firing on all cylinders!"
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