Claudia Filsinger and Geraldine Gallacher summarise the report “Bringing talent back to the workforce: how to make returner programmes work for your organisation” by the Executive Coaching Consultancy (2017) and other publications relevant to the career return field. Current career return practice is evaluated and recommendations are made as to how organisations can effectively manage career return programmes.

 Attracting career returners through specific recruitment programmes as a source of talent is not a new practice. A small number of career return programmes have been in existence for many years in a range of sectors and professions such as banking, legal, education and nursing. They are primarily aimed at women returning after parental career breaks but attract also professionals who take time out of corporate life for a variety of reasons: other care related breaks (e.g. eldercare), postgraduate education (e.g. full-time MBAs and PhDs), expatriates and entrepreneurs wishing to return to a corporate role. Employers typically support career returners with skills development programmes and coaching during the transition phase back into work. In March 2017 the UK government announced as part of the budget £5 million to support those returning to work after long career breaks. While this amount is very small, it is a first step to bring career returns more into the general spotlight.  Although these programmes are open both to men and women, the government announcement emphasised the primary aim is to reach all levels of management and industries where women are underrepresented. However, beyond being a measure to improve gender diversity, other factors make career return programmes attractive for organisations generally to recruit (in particular senior) talent.

What is the potential for career return programmes in the future?

The supply of talent active in the labour market is decreasing due to demographic changes. Namely, a declining number of people of working age caused by decreasing birth rates combined with the baby boomer generation retirement (Gratton and Scott, 2017). At the same time, due to longevity the average life span in the population is increasing and legislation changes have increased the individual’s career span (e.g. the later start of the pension age and through the abolishment of the default retirement age in the UK in 2011). Therefore, the reasons for taking career breaks will be more varied in the future (e.g. more eldercare related career breaks) and could mean multiple career breaks during one person’s career becoming more common.

In addition to these external factors, organisations often have an internal talent supply challenge. Hiring freezes and cut backs of graduate programmes following the financial crisis in 2008 resulted in gaps in the middle and senior management talent pipelines. To compensate, organisations could take more advantage of a wider variety of career returner profiles. One example is the phenomenon of ‘unretirement’. A study of unretirement in the UK found that 25% of retirees return to the workforce, half of which in the first 5 years. Interestingly, unretirement rates were not higher for those who were motivated by financial reasons (Platt et al. 2017). The desire to upgrade skills and missing aspects of their former lives have been identified as other factors for retiree returners to participate again in the labour market (Schlosser, Zinni and Armstrong-Stassen, 2012). This means employers have two talent pools ready made they can easily tap into – in addition to the general pool of alumni that have left them to take career breaks (for example for parenting), they could also approach their retired alumni as career return candidates. Organisations have recognised that diverse teams can bring competitive advantage, one of the reasons employers recruit through career return programmes. Having age diverse teams will be of particular advantage for sectors expected to grow due to an ageing population, e.g. healthcare and related services.

So if organisations widen the use of career return programmes in the future and recruit a more diverse profile of career returners, employers can learn from the practices of existing career return programmes that were driven by the aim to increase gender diversity.

What are returners looking for?

A study with women returners found that returners are prepared to change role and industry to get the flexibility they need to manage work and home responsibilities (Executive Coaching Consultancy, 2017). Employers wanting to attract and retain returner talent need to build flexibility into their thinking. The research highlights from a returner’s perspective the personal constraints and professional challenges of returning to work, and what an employer can do to ensure their return is a success. Over half (54%) that have returned rank striking a comfortable balance between home and work responsibilities as the biggest challenge in their professional and work life, and said their biggest personal constraint to returning to work was finding alternative care arrangements for their children (46%).  As the study found that career returners take up roles with more flexibility, but less remuneration and seniority the impact of career return programmes on the gender pay gap will need to be evaluated.

Best practice for career return programmes

Support for career returners is usually offered on an individual and organisation level. Individual interventions are typically aimed at developing IT and career management skills, often delivered as group interventions by the government, professional bodies and employer conferences during the employment search period. Organisations support career returners with a variety of measures as part of formal career return programmes, usually in the form of fixed term work placements, commonly known as “returnships” (3-12 months long) or with programmes that offer direct entry into permanent roles.

Best practices in supporting individuals with their career return are still emerging. Past studies with women returning to work after maternity breaks point to the complexity of career returns even after relatively short career breaks (Bussell, 2009; Brown and Kelan, 2013; Filsinger-Mohun, 2012; Vitzthum, 2017). This is echoed by a qualitative study exploring the impact of longer term career breaks on professional women’s career identity.  As career breaks are presenting identity challenges, adaptability and identity development are important competencies for women returning to work and need to inform support interventions before, during and after career breaks (Majid, 2015).

The previously mentioned study with 200 women returners by the Executive Coaching Consultancy (2017) found that almost one in four returners struggled with self-confidence which suggests even the most confident professionals will experience a dip in confidence on their return. Networking, which is critical for career advancement for most professional roles was also mentioned as a challenge by returners as home responsibilities reduce their availability to participate in networking events held outside regular office hours.

This shows that while offering returner support is a great way to mobilise the returner workforce there can be teething problems with the support employers currently offer. In order for both parties to get the most from a returner employers need to consider the full range of support they might offer in order to identify which will most effectively meet business objectives and the needs of returners. The common factor of career returners is having been on an extended career break. However, the reasons for taking the career break, the nature of the break and the motivation to return are diverse and returners therefore need individualised support.

Typically career return programmes include onboarding and ongoing support such as skills workshops, mentoring, buddying, group and individual coaching for the participants. A study evaluating return to work schemes in the UK high-tech industry found benefits in complementing group with individual interventions to support the career returners with an interconnected web of impact through diverse support measures (Panteli and Pen, 2009). Frequently, line managers are offered training on how to work with career returners. Line manager support was identified as the most important factor for a successful career return in the Executive Coaching Consultancy Survey (2017).

In summary, legislation changes on flexible working and gender pay reporting, as well as the increased focus of employers on diversity has created a more supportive environment for career returners. Lessons can be learned from existing career return programmes to widen their reach to a more diverse audience. Longer life and career spans could mean the reasons for taking career breaks and their frequency increases. Employers that can offer effective support to attract and retain career returners will find themselves sitting on a talent goldmine.

Click here for the references and further reading on this topic.

Bringing talent back to the workforce: how to make returner programmes work for your organisation” is a report produced by the Executive Coaching Consultancy (ECC) in 2017 based on a Career Returners’ Survey 2017, commissioned by ECC. The report includes employer case studies from the Bank of America Merill Lynch, Mastercard and UBS.  Copies of the full research findings are available to download at:

The survey was designed and implemented by an independent researcher. Participants were enlisted from recruitment partner organisations via membership lists as well as LinkedIn groups where members had attended an employer branded returner conference.  A total of 203 respondents completed the survey, split almost evenly between those hoping to return, “aspiring returners” (48%) and those who had already returned to the workplace, “returned” (52%). Respondents came from over 15 industry sectors, 96% were female and over 70% were aged between 35-48.

Claudia Filsinger is a Career Return Coach with the Executive Coaching Consultancy and an Associate at the Centre for Diversity Policy, Research and Practice at Oxford Brookes Business School.

Geraldine Gallacher is the Managing Director of the Executive Coaching Consultancy. She frequently writes and speaks on diversity topics.