Sara Good

by Sara Good

Embracing the returner workforce would benefit employees, employers and the economy at large – how can organisations better utilise this untapped potential?

Many employers are missing a trick when it comes to workers returning after an extended career break. They may either disregard the potential these experienced professionals bring or fail to support them adequately upon their return.

‘Returners’ often face an uphill battle, struggling not only to secure employment or re-employment, but also to reintegrate into a workplace that has moved on without them. Yet, if employers were able to better leverage their skills and experience, they would benefit hugely as would the employees in question and the economy at large.

What’s the issue for a returner?

There are many reasons why employees need to take an extended career break, but perhaps the most common relates to parental responsibilities, and particularly those that fall upon women.

Working mums returning to the workplace after a year or more off face a range of challenges, with many struggling to find work or ending up in lesser roles.

The Careers After Babies report offers some interesting statistics around this. For example, the report shows that, while 98% of mothers want to work less than a quarter (24%) of women go back to full-time after having children, and of that 24%, 79% end up leaving anyway.

The research also found 15% of women returned to different jobs in the same company. The data tells us that there are 32% fewer women in mid- management roles after having children and a 44% increase in women in admin and entry level roles. Many women appear to be taking lower-skilled roles whilst their families are young and there is a subsequent exodus of female managers, likely contributing to a lack of female leaders in businesses more generally.

These challenges don’t just impact those employees that have taken time off, but companies and the economy more broadly, contributing to gender inequality in leadership and the gender pay gap.

And it’s not just mothers that face these challenges. There are an increasing number of workers taking time off for illness, or to care for others that are unwell. Take for example the fact that last year around 700,000 workers were reportedly missing from the US labour force due to long COVID.

The returner expertise gap fallacy

My personal journey mirrors that of many returners. After taking a two-year hiatus to focus on motherhood, I dove back into the Learning & Development sphere, only to be told my two decades of experience had rusted in the interim.

Yet, I suspect that if I had been a fresh graduate, opportunities would have been bountiful. This stigma is a significant barrier for returners in their 40s and beyond, despite their vast expertise.

At the same time, the norm still favours formal qualifications over practical skills. Employers often overlook the wealth of experience returners possess. They fail to see that what might appear as a gap in current tech-savviness is often compensated by acute problem-solving abilities, strategic thinking, and perhaps even entrepreneurial skills honed through managing households or volunteer work. For instance, a mother running a baby group during her break acquires valuable skills in funding applications, health and safety compliance, and administration. These competencies are not only transferable but essential in many organisational roles.

What’s the answer?

In addition to changing their mindset when it comes to returners, employers have a key role to play in providing the right support.

Support for returners should not be a one-size-fits-all solution. It should be as diverse as the returners themselves. This means offering tailored plans that consider individual skills and circumstances, like flexible working hours or part-time reintroduction to the workplace. It’s about having a conversation and understanding what each returner needs to thrive. For some, it may be a refresher course in the latest software; for others, it could be a mentoring program to rebuild professional confidence.

While a small number of UK employers have initiated returner programs, many are still behind the curve.

These programs should focus on identifying the unique skills of returners and providing training to polish their existing abilities. Onboarding should include up-to-date technology training, goal setting, and networking opportunities—essentials for a smooth transition.

The changing world of work

The world of work is ever changing and, fortunately, there’s a growing movement toward employers recognising the value of transferable skills over role-specific qualifications and experience.

At the same time, governments dealing with an ageing population and a diminishing workforce have begun to recognise the need to reintegrate returners into the job market.

This all supports the idea that ‘returners’ are an untapped source of skills that could and should be better utilised. UK plc therefore has a responsibility to harness this pool of eager professionals. Some companies are leading the way and banking is arguably ahead of the curve here. For example, Bank of England has a returners programme for mid-level returners that achieves a 90% conversion rate from programme to permanence. Lloyds bank has similar conversion rates and promotes inclusivity, for example 60% are ethnic minorities. Science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) sectors are also proactive, with telecoms and utility companies taking up the lead. However, more organisations need to follow suit. By understanding where returners can fill gaps, businesses will not only enhance their workforce diversity but also retain valuable institutional knowledge.

Looking forward

Returners bring a fresh perspective that can invigorate an organisation’s culture and drive innovation. As learning and development become more skills-focused, the unique capabilities of the returner workforce will be increasingly vital.

It’s time for employers to recognise this untapped potential and create workplaces where experience is as respected as qualifications—and where every returner has the opportunity to thrive.

Returner FAQ

  1. What are returners, and why are they important?
    Returners are professionals who are re-entering the workforce after an extended career break, often due to reasons like parental responsibilities or illness. They bring valuable skills, experience, and perspectives that can benefit employers, employees, and the economy as a whole.
  2. What challenges do returners face when re-entering the workforce?
    Returners often encounter barriers such as stigma against their perceived lack of recent experience, difficulty securing employment or re-employment, and struggles with workplace reintegration. These challenges can hinder their professional growth and contribute to gender inequality in leadership roles and the gender pay gap.
  3. How can employers better support returners?
    Employers can provide tailored support for returners, such as flexible working arrangements, part-time reintroduction to the workplace, refresher courses in relevant skills, mentoring programs, and networking and professional development opportunities. By recognising and valuing the skills and experiences of returners, employers can create inclusive and supportive environments where every employee has the opportunity to thrive.
  4. What initiatives are in place to help reintegrate returners into the workforce?
    Some employers, particularly in sectors like banking and STEM, have implemented returner programs aimed at identifying and utilising returners’ unique skills. These programs provide returners training, support, and opportunities to re-establish their careers. However, more organisations need to follow suit to fully harness the returner workforce’s potential.
  5. How can returners contribute to workforce diversity and innovation?
    Returners bring a fresh perspective, diverse skills, and innovative thinking to organisations, which can invigorate workplace culture and drive innovation. As the world of work evolves to prioritise skills over qualifications, the unique capabilities of returners will become increasingly valuable in meeting the demands of the changing job market.

For more information, please Contact us on how to develop your people and teams.