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Returnships – The Who, What and the Why?

The term ‘returnship’ has been bandied around a lot at the moment. There are websites, blogs and government propositions popping up all over the place heralding the arrival of the ‘returnship’, but what exactly does it mean, and why is it so important now?

AAI CEO Joy Lewis elaborates;

A ‘returner’ is simply somebody re-entering the job market after a substantial break, whether it be for raising children, illness, care duties or any number of factors that may make it difficult to reignite a career.

The term was coined by the first female CEO at Pepsi Co, Brenda Barnes, who championed a returnship programme for women to re-enter the workforce in 2008. She believed women who had taken a career break to raise children made fantastic employees due to the transferable skills of leadership, multi-tasking and organisation.

Although Brenda died in January of this year, it is incredible to see that nearly a decade after its inception, the notion of the returnship is reaching a global audience.

What is a Returnship?

Like a traditional internship, a returnship is a placement aimed at job seekers who have taken a good time out from work and need to revamp their skillset. It’s not just women, men who take long breaks from their careers can find it difficult to get a foothold on the career ladder when they return. There’s a focus on women returners though, as it is much more common for them to be away from the workforce, and the impact on their career progression appears to be greater.

A returnship will typically last about 12 weeks and will be centred around a specific task or project that the candidate can take ownership of, and be accountable for. In our experience, we often see them creating their own role within the company, having demonstrated their competence.

In addition to having real work to do, a returnship should feature support to bring the candidate up to date with technological and professional developments in their industry. A level of mentoring or buddying can also help them back and developing their professional network is key. We are not talking about work experience, entry-level positions and temporary work solutions; returnships are a bridge back to more senior roles.

So what?

At AAI, we’ve been helping graduates of all ages to get into or return to meaningful work for the last 7 years so it’s great to see these recruitment values get some mainstream exposure.

We pride ourselves on shortlisting our candidates based on their experience, skill-set and attitude, which suits returners very well. We encourage our returners to refresh their skills and use the internship/returnship opportunity to develop their network, as well as their skills and experience.

I was even on my way to London to discuss themes of ethical and unbiased recruitment, including returnships, with the Prime Minister’s private office a few weeks ago, when the snap General Election was called, and our meeting was postponed! Shame, I had a lot to say!

Why does it matter?

It’s tough to return to work when you’ve lost some confidence, plus businesses are losing out big time from these experienced women who have so much to offer – and can do so very quickly. With the current dip in the availability of European workers wanting to come to the UK, there is also a pressing need for employers to consider all options open to them to find and develop talent.

While technology and innovation in the workplace is undoubtedly changing almost daily, I know that professionalism, communication and enthusiasm have no such shelf life. I am so proud that our oldest candidate was 54 at the time of their internship, and that women make up 65% of our successful applicants.

Sarah Hunter-Argyle, took an extended career break to raise her two young children. After working for the Society for Acute Medicine through AAI, she was employed as a Communications and Engagement Officer at Scotland’s Rural College in October 2012. Last October she took over as Head of Communications and has recently been appointed Senior Marketing and Communications Manager for Scotland for The Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board.

She credits AAI for rebuilding her confidence in the workplace and kick-starting her career after parenthood. This and other heart-warming testimonials brought the value of returnships well and truly home to me and the team.

Employers – Why Returners?

Risk-averse employers may be wary of taking on individuals with a gap in their work record, but while specific jobs may need up-to-the-minute knowledge and skills, they are in the minority. A broad portfolio of transferable workplace skills, delivered by a confident communicator who is eager to learn quickly, is what the majority of roles we see require. Returnships actually reduce the risk for employers who may just find a perfect fit for their company which they would not have found through more traditional hiring methods.

The UK gender pay gap sits at just over 18% (9% for full-time workers) and, since April 2017, companies with 250+ employees must publish their gender pay gaps. So, for many employers, bringing more women back into middle and senior management roles will support their pay gap whilst making good economic sense for their business.

While national newspapers herald this innovation and scramble for case studies, we continue to shortlist candidates for paid opportunities without prejudice.

If, by chance, you’re an employer and wondering now if a returnship could empower your business and your team, I look forward to hearing from you.

The term ‘Returnship’ is trademarked by Goldman Sachs


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