One path back to a fulfilling career

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October 4, 2021

How returner programmes create opportunities for women to reboot careers in mid-life.

Kristin returned to London from Hong Kong newly divorced, with three children and a five year career gap on her CV.  In Nerina’s case, it was seventeen years since she’d worked as a banker, spending much of the intervening years working for NGOs.  Elspeth had to leave her role at an insurance company for ill health reasons and was now working part time for a Scottish charity.  Susan had stepped away completely to focus on her son who had special educational needs.

Lawyer, banker, insurance professional, engineer:  all these women came from very different backgrounds.  What they had in common was a desire to get their professional careers back on track.  Why?  A mix of reasons.  Changing circumstances meant they had more time, a drive to earn more money, a desire to be a role model to their children.  Above all a feeling that they had unfulfilled potential: that there was more to come in their professional lives. 

Two Types of Barrier

Sadly, these women, and many like them, face two types of barriers. 

The first are the ones they erect themselves.  The stories that go round in their heads - sometimes spoken aloud - about how impossible this is.  “The kids won’t cope without me”.  “I’ve left it too long.”  “My skills are too rusty now, technology has moved on.”  Worst of all “I’m too old, who’d want me.”

These barriers are not unsurmountable. An old colleague, a previous boss, a friend, a good coach can all help to deconstruct these myths and assumptions. The other type of barrier is not quite as easy to demolish.

The recruitment industry relies on speed.  Recruitment agents are often measured on “time to fill a vacancy.”  Their reward is directly proportional to the salary a candidate earns.  In practical terms, this means that your average recruiter likes to see a CV that is a perfect fit for the role they are trying to fill.  And they don’t particularly like candidates who want to work part time as that means their fee will be reduced accordingly.

In a recruiter’s eyes you’re often only as good as your last job.  Candidates who present a CV that has a long gap on it, a career that hasn’t followed nice straight lines, some time in an inexplicable volunteering role totally unrelated to the job in hand, is not going to be straightforward.  When time is limited, these types of candidates don’t get the time of day.


People often assume that women like Kristin, Nerina and Elspeth will lack confidence when they begin to approach the recruitment market.  Some do, many don’t.  However, when they have sent their CV off to eight or nine recruiters (often more) and heard nothing back, their confidence quickly declines.  Whose wouldn’t?

Worst of all, these rejections also serve to reinforce the negative gremlins in their heads saying “It’s too late.”

Returnships: Recognising Value

The term returnship was first coined by Goldman Sachs, who had the sense to see that they were missing out on a huge swathe of talented people (mostly women) who had had successful careers, stepped away to take a career break or less challenging role, and were ready to return.

They created a tailored programme, whereby people who’d been on a career break were able to apply to join them on a fixed term contract, supported by appropriate coaching and training, with a view to offering a permanent role at the end of the term.

How they Work

At Inclusivity, we’ve been working with organisations to implement returner programmes for almost five years and we’ve seen them evolve from being a “nice to have” diversity initiative to being an important part of their talent acquisition strategy.  Successful programmes have significant commitment from the top and a firm intention that they should lead to permanent roles.

The best begin with the assumption that people returning from a career hiatus bring back a huge amount of value.  Not just their years’ of experience and technical skills but also their social capital, maturity, perspective and networks.  

The organisers use a tailored assessment process which looks for potential, acknowledges the full breadth of a candidate’s experience and understands that breaks should not be career limiting.  Successful candidates are usually offered a fixed term placement, a thorough training, onboarding and induction process, a buddy and mentor from within the organisations and one-to-one specialist coaching. 

Candidates usually begin work as a small cohort, with four or more people starting at the same time, doing their initial training together and then being able to support each other during the fixed term contract and beyond.

Why They Work

Most recruitment is transactional.  A job is promoted, candidates apply, interviews take place and one person is offered the role.  

Returnship programmes are relationship driven and we see them as a process, which often begins long before someone applies for a job. 

In our experience, the first conversation is all about the candidate’s ambitions and aspirations.  Where do they want to be in five years?  Is this a good first step on that journey (it doesn’t have to be the end point, just as step in the right direction).  What working pattern is possible?  What stories are going around their heads which might prevent them from achieving their potential. 

Ayesha, a lawyer I worked with recently, was successful at first interview but decided to pull out before the second was due to take place.  Talking it through, she explained that she didn’t feel she could go back to the pressure of working in a private practice law firm, she remembered the hours and how stressful it all was and decided it wasn’t for her.  

“That was ten years ago.” I reminded her.  “And at a different law firm.  Perhaps this is something you could explore at the second interview?  Ask them about the hours, talk about your concerns, ask about expectations. And remember, you’re not signing up for life, it’s a six month contract.”

Reader, she went for the second interview, was offered the job and just last week accepted a permanent role.  We did a little dance of celebration in the office here.

What to Look for in a Returner Programme

Experienced talent is in demand right now.  In many sectors, it's a candidate driven market.  So put yourself in the driving seat and get ready to ask some important questions to help you identify the best opportunities.  Specifically:

  • How long is the programme? In our view, the best are six months, to really give people the opportunity to shine.  We'd say four months minimum.
  • What is the motivation behind the programme? Ideally, you're looking for an answer that shows the employer is motivated to find great talent, not tick a diversity box.
  • What % of participants find a permanent position?  If an organisation has done this before, how many people ended up in work?
  • What support do you provide if there isn't an opportunity in this role? If you find yourself in a team or department that doesn't end up with a permanent position, will there be help to move to another area internally?
  • What support do you provide during the programme?  Is there a coach?  Will you be part of a cohort? How does the organisation approach on boarding?  Will technical training be provided? 
  • What training is given to line managers?  Line managers are often "make or break".  You're looking for a programme where this is acknowledged and where some time is taken to train line managers in their role in the process.

How to Create a Successful Application

  • Most programmes will ask for a CV.  Do not make the mistake of thinking you need a CV.  You actually need several: one for each role you're applying for.  A few tips.
  • Read your CV for 6 seconds.  Time yourself. What do you learn?  Recent research showed that recruiters may scan a CV very briefly before deciding whether to give it the time of day.  Your summary profile and what's on the first page has to hit them hard.  Why should they read on? Why are you the right person for the job?
  • Hands Face Space.  A Mars a Day helps you Work Rest and Play. Just Do It.  Think Mad Men rather than War and Peace.  Your CV is a marketing document, there to get you an interview.  What are the key messages that you want to convey?  Make sure they stand out.
  • Tailor it for every job, check for typos, have someone else read it if necessary.
  • Don't feel the need to justify your career break. If what you did is relevant to the job, great. Describe it.  If not, feel free to write "planned career break."  It's hardly going to be a surprise given this is a returner programme. You may have done some really interesting things and gained some transferrable skills: you can talk about that in the interview. The first thing is to get yourself that interview.
  • If they ask for a cover letter, don't just repeat your CV.  Write about why you're keen, what excites you about the opportunity, how ready you are to get your career back on track.  Make it different and add a bit of personality.

Be At the Net

Be ready for some inevitable questions.  You're not forced to answer but have a think about these:

  • What are your salary expectations.  You don't have to have an exact figure but it's well worth having a range and being able to discuss that with the recruiter.  If a salary range isn't advertised, do some research to find out what the market rate is for the job.  Sites like Glassdoor and Indeed can be helpful.  Or look on LinkedIn at similar jobs being advertised.
  • What is your ideal working pattern. 4 days? All at once?  Spread across the week? As well as asking the firm how much flexibility they have, what about you?
  • How do you feel about remote working?  Whilst working from home has its advantages, when it comes to developing new relationships, finding the right work and getting regular feedback does benefit from some time face to face.  What’s your ideal pattern?
  • When could you start!

Useful Resources

A Final Thought

Returner programmes are the tip of an iceberg.  They do a great job of breaking down barriers and shining a light on the potential in people ready to reignite their careers after a hiatus.  However, they are not the only way back. 

Many organisations aren’t large enough to create their own programme but are smart enough to recognise this is a valuable talent pool.  Don’t let a break on your CV prevent you from applying for any job if you think you have the skills and experience.   And don’t let the voices in your head tell you it’s too late.  What do you have to lose?

As Emma Raducanu said at the start of the US Open:

“It’s all a free swing and a bonus for me because I don’t have anything to lose”.

So go on. Take a swing at it.

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