The challenges faced by women returning to the workplace cost the UK an estimated £1.7bn a year in lost economic output, according to recent research on the subject. The stories of people, often mothers, struggling to return to work after a career break are sadly ones we hear all too often. Add to this the scale of the contribution this untapped pool of talent could stand to offer if their skills and potential were better recognised and supported by businesses, and the situation is quite staggering.
But enlightened businesses are starting to take action. While O2’s career returnship scheme was one of only 23 to launch in 2016, so far in 2017 a further 30 businesses have expanded their recruitment processes to encourage people to return from a career break. Momentum is building, but it’s still only a small fraction of businesses that are helping experienced professionals get a foot back on the career ladder. The Government’s £5 million fund to support returnships is a timely boost. It’s now time companies started welcoming the fresh perspectives and years of experience that returners can bring. It doesn’t just make sense for the UK economy, it makes clear business sense.
Many of the men and women who decide to take career breaks have a wealth of valuable experience and creativity but find the route back into a senior business position trying at best, due to diminished confidence and a CV gap. This often leads to would-be returners turning their back on corporate life, joining smaller local companies, developing their own business ventures, or focusing on voluntary activities. Whilst these paths are right for some, this ‘brain drain’ from some of the UK’s biggest businesses is depriving both companies of the value of hundreds of men and women.
Returnships offer a practical solution to attract and support this group of highly-qualified, experienced and motivated professionals. The individual applicant benefits from the opportunity to showcase their talent and enhance it through dedicated training sessions, whilst businesses in turn gain the maturity, stability and wisdom of seasoned professionals. With gender diversity at senior levels an issue for many large UK businesses, returnships can also offer the opportunity to broaden female representation at multiple levels and reinforce organisational commitment to diversity and flexibility within career development.
For these reasons and more, we at O2 set ourselves the challenge of finding and nurturing talent from this pool by launching our Career Returners programme last year. The programme, developed in partnership with Women Returners, is designed to help both men and women who have taken career breaks to re-enter the workplace at their own pace, supported through one-on-one mentoring and regular training sessions which focus on enhancing their existing skill set. Of our twelve returners, eight went on to secure senior positions at O2 and many of them have since been promoted to lead teams across our business. What we’ve seen clearly shows that they already had many of the skills and expertise to make them vital assets to our business, but were simply looking for the right platform and tailored training opportunities to realise their potential.
What unites the women I meet on the programme is that together they are proof of the skills and talent a lot of businesses are missing out on. In an increasingly-competitive job market, it is common place for candidates to be dismissed because of long gaps in their CV. We need to work together to make sure talented candidates no longer need to view time taken out from work for childcare, or for any other reason, as an insurmountable obstacle. We have been so impressed by our returners that we are expanding O2’s Career Returners programme this year to 16 roles, giving even more applicants the opportunity return to work at a level befitting their experience and expertise.
Now is the time for every business to broaden its attitude to recruiting men and women who are returning from a break. If they don’t, they will be missing out on untapped skills and leadership potential for years to come.
Ann Pickering is HR director of O2 (Telefónica UK)