What is a Returnship?

With a skills shortage facing the UK, many companies have found that they are lacking the skills and experience they need to thrive. Totaljobs has been looking at potential techniques that business can use to tackle the skills shortage, and one stand-out option is something called a returnship.

That’s not a typo, and if you haven’t heard of a returnship, you’re not alone. 9 in 10 people have never heard of it either.

Returnships explained

In short, a returnship is a higher-level internship, whereby an employer outlines a specific programme to welcome experienced professionals back into work after an extended career break. It could be aimed at those who have taken a break to care for children or for elderly relatives, to travel or pursue a passion.

Returnships are professionally paid and are usually short term contracts, lasting 3-6 months, though many programmes result in on-going work. The work is commercially significant work, drawing on their prior experience and skills and offering a route back into professional work.

How popular are they?

Our study of 2,628 candidates and 100 employers tells us that 5% of the UK workforce has undertaken a returnship. But upon hearing what a returnship is, 3 in 4 candidates told us that they would definitely consider the option in order to return from a break in their career.

So the hurdle facing returnships seems to be down to a lack of awareness – rather than a lack of interest.

Currently, just over 4% of employers offer returnships, telling us that they are motivated by the gilded opportunity to get highly skilled workers into their workplace. For many organisations who offer a returnship, acquiring these highly qualified people who have left the talent pool, for whatever period of time, allows them an opportunity to bring managerial expertise into their organisation to support existing staff.

From the employee side, the main reason given by those who have undergone a returnship is the difficulty around returning to full-time work, which is cited by half of respondents. This could be due to remaining commitments which prompted the career break in the first place, such as ongoing childcare duties. Interestingly 16% of people who have taken a returnship say took this route due to a lack of confidence, 22% believe they needed to develop soft skills and 17% felt they would be out of date with the relevant tools / software in their previous industry.

And how did they feel about doing so? A third still felt that returnships were ‘a good way to ease themselves back into the workforce’.

Importantly though, it is not just childcare that encourages people to go on a career break, and consequentially a returnship. When looking at the reasons why people have undergone a returnship, only a small majority (51%) told us they were parents, with 49% of people who had taken a returnship not doing so because of childcare commitments.

What’s preventing take up of returnships?

96% of businesses don’t offer returnships, and when asked why nearly half simply state that it’s because they had not heard of them. Alongside this, 35% claim their organisation is too small, and as a result they don’t have enough relevant roles for them to be viable.

But there’s still scope for this becoming an increasing fixture among larger organisations. As while half of recruiters are unsure as to whether or not they would be open to offering a returnship scheme, 1 in 5 believed they would consider doing so having become aware of them during our research.

It seems that a deal breaker may well be the need for assistance from the government. We asked respondents whether an incentive, along similar lines to the Apprenticeship Levy would encourage them to offer returnships, and nearly 70% of respondents then told us that they were confident their organisation would offer returnships if they were afforded this benefit.

But alongside any financial incentive, it is clear that an education piece is needed – as so many employers haven’t even heard of the concept. With half citing this as the primary reason they had not embraced the scheme, a UK-wide education piece on returnships could help facilitate this much needed scheme for re-activating these career-breakers.

How do they benefit mums?

One company that does offer returnships is O2. Speaking of the advantages it brought to her personally,

Clare McIntosh, Head of O2 Drive Insurance, and mother of three, told totaljobs:

“When I first came across returnships I was initially surprised as to why more companies weren’t offering them. For me, a returnship sounded ideal as it offered a test drive into working life for a set period of time, so if I couldn’t make the balance work, there wasn’t any pressure. I could move on with nothing lost, but with my skills refreshed.

“I’d fully recommend returnships to others, however for it be really successful I’d say it needs to be backed by an employer who encourages flexible working, like O2. The scheme enabled myself and other returners to re-build our confidence back into the work place, whilst also providing a network to tap into to talk about issues we all had in common. Even today we still regularly catch up and lunch together. Since the programme I haven’t looked back since.”

Founder and CEO of Mumsnet, Justine Roberts added:

“Returnships are a relatively new idea, but – as members of our Family Friendly programme can attest – where they’re offered, they’re taken up with gusto by highly qualified women wanting to come back to the workplace. Recruiting and retaining the best talent is a priority for any business, and returnships can be a crucial part of recruitment strategy for forward-thinking companies.”

So there we have it, the door is open for returnships to grow in prominence with the aim of attracting skilled workers back into full time employment and the UK talent pool. The benefits of these experienced, driven professionals may well be squandered without higher awareness and governmental measures to encourage companies to offer returnships.

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