Returner programmes have gathered momentum in the last few years as employers seek to plug skills gaps and recognise they are missing out on an untapped talent pool of experienced people who have taken career breaks – something which may become much more common as we all work longer.

In addition to plugging skills gaps, business reasons for hiring returners include increasing diversity, bringing in people with a different mindset, backing up commitments to increasing the number of women in senior roles and addressing the gender pay gap. But what have those pioneers who have been running them learnt from the experience and how can they be made more effective?

A recent employer roundtable held by and hosted by UBS looked at some of the models, the main challenges and lessons learnt.

One of the main challenges was head count. Many employers spoke of wanting to hire more returners, but said there were problems finding permanent roles for returners. Restructures combined with limits on head count to make the situation more challenging in several cases. Employers had changed the dates of their programmes so they linked with the beginning of the financial year when there might be more head count. Others had switched from returner programmes to direct supported hires.

If jobs could not be guaranteed at the end of programmes employers felt this should be clearly spelt out at the start of the process in order to manage expectations.

A flexible working culture was a critical enabler so returners didn’t stand out even more if they asked for flexibility and it was an exception, but a big challenge was finding part-time senior roles for returners who did not want to work full time. This was where job shares could be an option. However, employers felt it should not be assumed that returners wanted to work reduced hours, although different types of flexibility could be on offer. 

Preparation for assessment was important for returners since it could be daunting facing an interview after so many years out of the workplace. Introductory sessions could help with useful information about promoting yourself on LinkedIn and signposting to organisations who could provide information to get returners interview-ready. Hiring managers also needed to be properly prepared for the issues faced by returners so they understood the context they were coming from.

The length of the programme was deemed an important consideration. Although some returners might want to try a role out for a short time, it was generally thought that 12 weeks was too short. A minimum of 16 weeks was regarded as a safer bet so returners could make an impact.

Employers emphasised that the support needed for returners is greater than for other recruits, such as graduates. Many employers match returners with mentors and buddies. Resource is a big issue – many employers did not have extra budget for sifting cvs and supporting returners and they felt it was important to be honest about the capacity to support programmes if they were scaled up. 

So what of the future? Employers at the roundtable agreed that the future lies in normalising the recruitment of returners, but said that businesses are not at that point yet. However, some employers already embed returners within their recruitment process, making it clear that every role is open to returners and support this with internal coaching and mentoring. One employer said programmes used to support parents coming back from parental leave could be useful for direct returner hires. Another area to explore is using apprenticeships for returners.