Updated: Jun 21, 2021
The number of returnship opportunities for women who want to return to work after a career break is on the rise. Read on to find out if these return-to work programmes could help you re-enter corporate life now you’re ready for a career reboot
Written by Dr Emma Waltham | Maternity Returners Expert
Returnships were initiated in the US and they are still a relatively new scheme for women in the UK. The aim of these schemes is to encourage people to relaunch their careers after a break. While internships are still a fairly new concept here, the number of programmes is rising year-on-year. So, if you’ve taken time out from corporate life to raise a family and now want to return to a professional job, don't overlook return-to work-programmes – they may be just what you’ve been waiting for to get back ‘on ramp’.
"Don't overlook return-to-work programmes – they may be just what you’ve been waiting for to get back ‘on ramp’"
What is a Returnship?
Returnships, or return-to-work programmes, are short-term internships for people – both men and women – who’ve had a career break of at least two years. They are set up by companies who recognise the need to attract this group of experienced, talented people back into their organisations. They get that when people intentionally press pause, their expertise and capabilities don’t go away: they will still make valuable employees. The penny has also dropped that wooing back mums who’ve had a career break is an effective way to increase the numbers of women into senior roles.
"The penny has also dropped that wooing back mums who’ve had a career break is an effective way to increase the numbers of women into senior roles"
Returnships are usually limited to people who’ve taken at least 2 years out, because once women have been out of corporate life for this length of time, re-entry starts to become much more difficult. The reality is that recruiters tend to be biased against applicants who do not have current experience and so women returners are more likely to fall at the first hurdle. (If you’ve returned to work after a break, but are working at a lower level than previously to fit in around family commitments, you can still apply to return-to-work schemes though.)
Return-to-work programmes are typically short-term, paid placements that can lead to a permanent job. Training, mentoring and coaching support is often part of the package. The idea is that returnships phase the transition back into corporate life while allowing parents to continue to juggle their family commitments.
Check out this interesting video, produced by O2 where two women share their experience of a career-returner programme.
Pros of Returnships
You know the organisation is proactively looking for women (and men) who’ve had a career break. They are consciously welcoming people who’ve taken time out, so you will feel less sensitive about your gap.
Even if the role isn’t what you want to do long term, it can give your a boost, with recent work experience at the level you want to work in.
You’ll probably be part of a cohort so you’ll have peer support.
There’s lots of tailored assistance from the company, such as training and coaching.
Working in a professional job, even if it’s temporary, gives you a chance to regain your confidence.
They are good for technical sectors where time away means you might now have a skills gap.
You can build up your network.
Cons of Returnships
Very few opportunities are available and they tend to be with companies that are switched on to flexible working anyway.
The jobs are currently in limited sectors, such as law, banking, professional services and construction, and they target people with prior relevant experience, so are simply not an option for many women.
A permanent job at the end isn’t guaranteed, so if you're working part time or freelancing, it’s a leap of faith to give up existing work to take this on. To give you an idea of the conversion rate to permanent roles, the Women Returners, a professional network that promotes return-to-work programmes, says that 60–85% of participants have been offered permanent jobs following schemes that they are involved in.
While the schemes often offer flexibility around hours or remote working, they are not necessarily part time.
Roles are currently focused on the south east of England.
You’ll need to find childcare to cover the 3–6 month period, without knowing if you will continue to need it after that.
Salaries can be lower than what you’ll have earned prior to your break, as there can be an assumption that you need skilling up to return to your previous level of productivity.
So, while any initiative is to be welcomed that recognises women returners for the valuable underused resource they are, returnships aren’t a silver bullet. My concern is that they reinforce the perception that people who’ve taken a career break need extra support when they go back into the professional workforce.
While it’s natural that confidence dips during time out of professional life, often such fears are totally unfounded. Just because you’ve had time out doesn’t mean your skills and expertise have gone away. On the contrary, juggling family life will have helped you prioritise, negotiate, and develop patience and resilience in ways that you couldn’t have imagined before becoming a mum. And the list goes on.
Everyone who starts a new role, whether they’ve taken a break or not, will be on a learning curve, career breakers are no different and are certainly not special in that respect. The re-entry problem isn’t with the applicant, it's due to the perception of women returners among recruiters and managers. While there is no doubt returnships can assist women, and heaven knows we need all the help we can get, it’s important that the schemes don’t reinforce ingrained biases and become counterproductive.
"The re-entry problem isn’t with the applicant, it's due to the perception of women returners among recruiters and managers"
How to Apply
To find details of returnships, you can just google and see what comes up, plus there are lists on various websites of open schemes:
Another option is to search out family-friendly organisations that offer flexible working. While they might not offer return-to-work schemes, if they have good reputation for offering flexibility, that’s an excellent start. Roles might not be offered part time, but there might be choice offered around hours worked or remote working. Consider applying for permanent full-time roles with companies like this and asking about flexibility if you are shortlisted for interview.
"Roles might not be offered part time, but there might be choice offered around hours worked or remote working"
Check out these websites’ lists to find family-friendly professional employers:
Timewise also showcases women who work flexibly while usefully mentioning their organisations
It's a Wrap
I've run through what returnships are and why they are worth consideration if you are a woman returning to work after a career break. The reality is that returners who have taken more than two years out can find it difficult to get interviews, as they don’t have current experience. These schemes can help get your foot back in the door. I also explored the pros and cons of return-to-work programmes, and looked at options for finding flexible working outside of these schemes, if they are not for you.