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FEATURE: How engineering returnships can tap into a lost talent pool

Amit Katwala

(Credit: Getty Images)
(Credit: Getty Images)

When Lindsey Day had to leave her engineering graduate scheme to move across the country with her husband’s job, she thought it would be easy to find another one.

It wasn’t. Despite holding a first-class degree in mechanical engineering, Day found herself stranded – out of sync with the September intake dates for graduate schemes, and unable to find other roles, despite moving from South Wales to Stafford, in England’s engineering heartland. “I got nowhere in applications for another graduate role,” she remembers. 

Starting a family complicated matters further, especially as her husband’s job – in engineering – offered limited flexibility. Day was advised to keep applying for graduate roles, but found them even less flexible than standard jobs. “It was a case of ‘accept the conditions or don’t bother applying’,” she explains. “There were very few situations where I actually saw a graduate role I could apply for.” 

She tried entry-level roles, but her unusual CV wouldn’t get past the recruitment agencies, and looked at masters degrees, but childcare was an issue. As the years passed, Day grew increasingly frustrated. “I’ve come to realise that, even with big companies that have lots of great programmes, unless you tick all the boxes you don’t get off the starting grid,” she says.

Day is not alone. There are thousands of people struggling to get back into the engineering industry after a career break, even as companies struggle to fill positions during an unprecedented skills shortage. But a new initiative is trying to help.

Unconscious bias

“There are a lot of people who have taken a career break who are wanting to return to work, but are not able to find the type of jobs they want,” says Kirsten Bodley, chief executive of the Women’s Engineering Society. “They tend to take a job that offers flexibility, but often those jobs aren’t in need of the skills that they actually have.” 

This isn’t a problem unique to engineering, but Day thinks companies in this field tend to be less flexible than their counterparts elsewhere, which can exacerbate the situation. That means that those who do need flexibility – whether that’s to raise children or to do something else – invariably end up being forced to take a career break, which is a problem.

There is often a reluctance among recruiters to put forward candidates with any sort of gap in their CV, according to Natalie Desty, director of workforce development at the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST). “There’s still a lot of unconscious bias, and a real belief that a career break equates to a deterioration in skills,” she says. 

Before joining the IMarEST, Desty worked in recruitment. “I had so many fantastically qualified, particularly female, engineers who couldn’t get back into the workplace,” she remembers. “Recruiters play a big role, and so does automation in recruitment,” she adds. “Career breaks don’t translate very well if you’re not actually talking to a person.”

Last November, Desty and Bodley’s organisations collaborated to set up STEM Returners, an initiative to try to help the droves of people trying to break back into the engineering industry. They organise ‘returnships’ – paid job placements for people like Day, which aim to provide useful, up-to-date experience and build confidence about getting back into the workplace. “Returnships are really common in other industries, it just seems to be engineering that’s a little behind the curve,” says Desty.

This month, the first cohorts of STEM returners will start their 13-week returnship programmes at construction firm Kier and engineering firm Babcock. There will be training and coaching, with each returner allocated a mentor to help them, and, crucially, there are jobs waiting at the end of the process. 

“The 13 weeks allows the returner to get up to speed and gain confidence in the workplace, and then go straight into the position,” says Desty. Building confidence is key, says Bodley, particularly for women – who are less likely to apply for a job if they don’t meet all of the criteria. 

STEM Returners now has more than 70 candidates and 10 companies on its books. The average time away from the industry is five years – about the time it takes for someone to have a child and see them start school – and a lot have been working in other industries, including many teachers. 

There’s no typical story, though. Some returners have been in the armed forces and are looking to use the programme to transfer their skills into a civilian role. Others have taken breaks to go travelling, to help care for a relative, to volunteer or to deal with their own health issues. 

Although 95% of the applicants so far have been women, the scheme is not exclusive to them. “We had a load of men,” says Desty. “It’s a returners programme, not a women’s returners programme.”

There are benefits for businesses too. Recent research by accountants PwC revealed that there could be a potential £1.7bn boost to GDP by addressing the ‘career break penalty’ across all industries, with an estimated 427,000 women seeking to return to work in professional roles.

 

Diversity boosts performance

Study after study has found that diverse businesses tend to perform better, yet engineering is 91% male and 94% white. That’s one of the reasons companies are so keen to get involved with STEM Returners. “We are really passionate about shifting the diversity dial and having a more balanced workforce,” says Bella Seaden, HR project manager at Kier, which was oversubscribed for the 10 places on its pilot returners programme.

“We saw this as a fantastic opportunity to look at an untapped resource,” says Jennie Cherif-Popham of Babcock, which is taking on six returners for its programme. “We’re always looking for different ways to encourage people back into engineering.”

Part of creating diversity is building roles that work for everyone, in an industry that is quite traditional and generally opposed to flexible working. “A lot of that is cultural – from an industry perspective we’ve never done this before,” says Seaden. “By being one of the first to do this it’s going to be easier for other companies to follow suit.”

Designing roles that are more accommodating to people’s lives might mean fewer people have to take career breaks to begin with. For Day, who is starting her own returnship programme soon, it’s something engineering companies could do more of. “I can see how flexible roles in engineering could work, with reduced hours and factoring people’s lives into work,” she says. “The problem is they’re recruiting for full-time positions.”

Engineering firms have also sometimes found it hard to connect with people who have the skills that they’re looking for. Day found out about STEM Returners via social media, but not everyone is as connected. “A lot of these people have been turned off. They’re not on LinkedIn, they’re not on Twitter,” says Desty. “We’re having to be really creative with how we find them.”

The other argument is the economic one. “Our sector has a very well-publicised skills gap, and we’re trying to create alternative ways to fill that skills gap,” says Seaden. Bodley agrees: “We are skills scarce in the engineering sector, and increasing diversity can have a big impact,” she says. “There’s wasted talent and wasted resource that’s not fully utilised.”

With engineering roles becoming harder to fill, there’s never been more incentive for firms to tap into that resource. There’s a pool of people desperate to get back into work. “This is tapping into a lost talent pool,” says Desty. “I didn’t realise how lost it was until I started trying to find them.”

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