The Government helped raise the profile of returner schemes when it pledged £5 million in 2017’s Budget to create hundreds of returner roles on programmes within the civil service, social care and teaching. Focus on this talent pool has accordingly increased, with professional networks now available for returners to join online, helping them to source opportunities or receive guidance and advice. Many large and small business are now operating returner programmes at various stages throughout the year, including those ran by Mastercard, O2 and the Bank of England.

Rather than being a HR buzzword, the attention on returners and those who have had career breaks is becoming increasingly focused. Many employees with wide-ranging skills, talent and experience across a swathe of industries will take a break from professional life for a number of reasons, whether these are childcare, education, travel or other responsibilities. When it comes to restarting work, these individuals are more likely to re-enter the same or a different profession at a lower level or in a less secure role due to the gap in their work experience. This can lead to those with, often senior, experience being unfulfilled and unchallenged at work, while ensuring the business they join does not reap the rewards of their talents.

As well as their professional skills going untapped, a recruitment scheme which focuses on those who have had a career break recognises that individuals are likely to gain or enhance their skills outside of the workplace. Learning and development is not restricted to the professional environment and life experiences will often lead to more well-rounded individuals. Whether development relates to the individuals’ time management, staying calm under pressure or multi-tasking, recognising that personal skills are as important as those gained from working life will lead to a more successful returner scheme, alongside encouraging a breadth of initiative and ideas within organisations.

Returner schemes are often associated with the recruitment of women after they have taken time off work to care for children. By creating a development opportunity for females to aid their progression towards senior roles after a career break, these programmes are seen as a positive step towards reducing an organisation’s gender pay gap while improving diversity across the workforce. It is important, however, for companies to remember that career breaks can be undertaken by both genders and focusing a scheme on one sex will be an act of discrimination. Equality of opportunities will continue to apply and discrimination laws will protect individuals at every stage of the scheme, from advertisement to selection.

Introducing a returner scheme or programme which is aimed at this pool of talent will formalise internal processes, from recruitment through to onboarding and training. Alternative forms of returner schemes are available and it is important that businesses develop a scheme that is fit for purpose, ensuring this is an appropriate length and that matters such as timing and numbers of participants are considered. The most common schemes, known as “returnships”, are those where a returner is employed on a short fixed-term contract with the aim of providing permanent employment after the scheme ends, should both parties feel this suitable. An alternative method is a supported hire scheme where the returner commences a permanent position in a senior role.

All schemes will provide the individual with greater support and training in the initial period to ensure, to the greatest extent, that their return to employment is successful. An important focus of training is that relating to personal skills, such as teamwork and presenting, to ensure the returner feels confident in every aspect of their professional return. To provide peer-to-peer support, a buddy system can be introduced to provide a networking opportunity for returners and established members of staff. While providing a point of contact for the returner, this will also help the business by creating greater working relationships which will aid the flow of ideas, and communication, across the workforce.

Alongside the positive impact caused by successfully returning those who have had a professional break back into work, organisations will experience additional benefits from those who have successfully completed the returner scheme and will continue their employment with the business. Not only will the business gain the individual’s experience from their previous roles and fresh ideas, showing confidence in the individual will lead to higher levels of engagement and greater performance within their role. There will also be a greater degree of loyalty as the returner will feel that their value has been recognised and will feel positive in their ongoing employment, and development, with the business as they have been supported in their professional return. More loyal employees will improve the bottom line of any company as it helps to increase retention, while reducing recruitment and training costs.

Returner schemes may not be suitable for every business, however the breadth of the talent pool available means that organisations are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of recruiting these individuals. Where a formal scheme cannot be introduced, companies are encouraged to adapt their recruitment process to avoid a stringent focus on recent professional experience and, instead, place greater consideration on skills and experience gained inside, and outside, of the workplace. Rather than seeing a career break as a negative, recruiters can look to the wider picture of what experience the individual could bring to the business if they were successful. Being flexible and providing additional support at the commencement of their employment will also help new employees who have had a career break smoothly adapt back into working life.

Last reviewed 20 February 2019