Tackling the career break penalty

March 05, 2024

 Professionals looking to return to work after a career break often face barriers. Whether they paused their career to look after their children or elderly parents, for health or other reasons, their professional confidence has typically taken a hit. Self-belief is further eroded when they start applying for jobs through online job adverts and recruitment agencies, where they encounter systemic recruitment bias against candidates without recent experience.

Highly skilled returners describe ‘sending their CV into a black hole’ and ‘having years of experience washed away’ by the CV gap. An international Harvard Business School study in 2021 found that close to half of employers with automated tracking systems filter out CVs with gaps of over 6 months An estimated two-thirds of returning professionals end up taking lower-skilled, lower paid roles, deciding to retrain, or not getting back into the workforce at all. 

Tackling this ‘career break penalty’ needs targeted action. At Career Returners, we’ve made significant progress over the last decade in lowering return to work barriers. Alongside providing free support to our Career Returners Professional Network of 9,000 returning professionals, we’ve partnered with over 170 employers in the UK, Ireland and worldwide to create supported routes back to work for over 3,000 professionals. But much still needs to be done.

The Business and Inclusion Rationale

Inspiring Inclusion is the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day. Becoming more inclusive of this group – around 90% women - is the right thing for Irish employers to do. There is also a strong business case. In Ireland, there are 90,000 people economically inactive and available for work, over a quarter of these on a break for caring reasons. This is only part of the potential target pool

Employers accessing this talent pool reap the benefits. Returners fill skills gaps and bring a fresh perspective, maturity and a high degree of motivation. Employers can increase diversity of gender, age, ethnicity and experience. As one employer explains:The breadth and depth of talent in the returner space is rich and diverse. It is exactly this diversity of thought that is pivotal to understanding and delivering on the needs of our clients.” 

Returner Programmes

Returner programmes offer a proven means of addressing this huge waste of talent, giving organisations a structured way to hire and support professionals back into work after breaks of 18 months up to 15 or more years. Widespread in the UK and USA, returner programmes have started to make in-roads in Ireland and are well-established with pioneering employers such as Deloitte and J.P. Morgan. 

Returners can join via a ‘returnship (a professional placement, usually for 6 months, with an intent to hire if successful) or ’supported hiring’ (directly into a permanent role). The returner benefits from a supportive recruitment process, with recruiters and line managers trained to assess a candidate whose work experience can date back well over a decade. Managers receive training in supporting the new hire and returners benefit from expert Career Returners Coaching, training and mentoring to enable them to settle back in and integrate faster into the organisation. Typically, participants join as a cohort, benefitting from a ready-made peer support group. These components create a successful experience for both returner and employer. At the end of our partner returnships, at least 80% of participants typically secure ongoing roles.

Career Returners Inclusive Hiring

Cohort programmes are only viable for larger employers, and there is a broader need to welcome returning professionals across the board. An alternative approach, that can be adopted by any employer, is laying the foundations to become a career-returners inclusive employer. This involves:

  • Review and adapt all stages of your recruitment process to remove bias against candidates without recent experience. Are people being screened out at application stage for a lack of recent experience? Is this experience gap disadvantaging them at interview stage, in technical interviews or competency-based questions?
  • Promoting the full business case for returner hiring, alongside the diversity, equity and inclusion rationale, to business leaders and mid-managers.
  • Providing returner inclusion training to your recruiters and hiring managers. Challenge any negative stereotypes and highlight examples of people within the organisation or sector who have returned to work after multi-year career breaks to provide credible case studies. 
  • Structuring transition support for returner hires, such as training, mentoring and coaching to set them up for success. 
  • Promoting job vacancies to the returner talent pool. Consider adding this wording on job adverts: ‘We welcome applications from candidates who have taken a career break.

Providing career returners with a supportive route back to work is an important step towards becoming a more inclusive employer. You will not only be changing lives, but you’ll also tap into a wealth of new talent, skills and experience that will bring huge value to your organisation.

Julianne Miles and Darina Mulligan

Julianne Miles is Co-Founder and CEO of Career Returners (previously Women Returners), a purpose-led social business which works with individuals, organisations and Government bodies to enable professionals to return to work after an extended career break. Darina Mulligan is the Lead Coach for Career Returners Ireland.