Do ‘returnships’ actually help mothers to get back to work?

The companies that run returnship programmes see them as a real alternative to the route many returners take

Returnships – internship programmes for people returning to work after a lengthy career break – are becoming increasingly popular in the UK, with evidence suggesting that not only do they work but also that they work especially well for women.

Whilst not new – having first been launched in the UK in 2014 following their success in the US – returnships are not especially common, although they are becoming more so. The number has increased from 3 in 2014 to 37 last year.

Returnships offer a six-month paid position in a role and include coaching, mentoring and skills training. They are offered by businesses across the UK in a range of sectors, with programmes currently offered by companies such as Network Rail, Ofcom, Deloitte, Bank of England and O2.

Clare McIntosh is one of those who has benefitted from the O2 returners programme. Having taken time off to care for her children, she was struggling to find a new job because she needed one with flexible hours due to one child having a medical condition. O2 was able to offer that flexibility and a returnship programme that gave Ms McIntosh the chance to manage a project, gain up-to-date experience and regain her confidence before she took a permanent position with the company.

Returnship programmes target individuals with experience at middle or senior management level who have taken time away from work and find that their skills are out of date. The programmes are open to both men and women; however, the evidence shows that it is mainly women applying. This is no a surprise when the Office for National Statistics reports that almost 90 per cent of professionals taking a career break are female.

The companies that run returnship programmes see them as a real alternative to the route many returners take, which is applying for lower-level jobs or ones that do not make full use of their skills and assuming they will need to work their way up the career ladder again. For the companies, it is a way to bring highly-skilled staff onboard quickly; for the returners, it is a much more positive route to returning to work and one that does not leave them feeling demotivated or that their skills are being eroded further.

There is another potential benefit of returnship programmes, at least for women, which is the potential to reduce the gender pay gap. Women are paid 17 per cent less than men on average and their return to lower-paid and lower-skilled jobs after a career break is cited as one of the reasons. With returnship programmes, this cycle is broken and women and more likely to be paid higher wages as they are taking up more senior roles.

For all the positives, not everyone believes in returnships. Allison O’Kelly, chief executive of career development company Corps Team/Mom Corps, feels that they add unnecessary pressure because there is no guarantee of a job at the end of the programme. She also feels the term itself is somewhat derogatory and undermining; however, most people seem to find returnships a positive and a way to break down stereotypes when it comes to women returning to work after career breaks.

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