Returning to your engineering career

Written by: Keri Allan
Published on: 6 Jul 2018

Many of today’s workforce will end up taking time away from work, so how do you make that return after a career break?


Modern careers are increasingly unlikely to follow the ‘traditional’ routes available to our parents and grandparents as a result of changing employment patterns and fluctuating personal circumstances. It’s fair to say that, at some point in their career, many of today’s workforce will end up taking time away from work. This may be in order to care for children or perhaps elderly relatives; however, career breaks aren’t always out of necessity. Many people who didn’t take a ‘gap year’ at the start of their career choose to take a sabbatical later in life to travel or retrain, and as the age of retirement rises, others seek to take a career break for a variety of different reasons. However, legislation and the views of business have been slow to catch up with this modern outlook on working life. “Legislative progress on issues like maternity and parental leave recognise this reality to some extent; however, there is still some way before career breaks are culturally normalised at work,” notes Sue Ferns, deputy general secretary at trade union Prospect, which represents scientists, engineers and managers. “There are still too many examples of

inconsistent management approaches and lack of support from work colleagues,” she highlights. “We need to move on from career breaks being perceived as a ‘women’s issue’ to one of opportunity and support for all workers.”

Opinions are changing, albeit more slowly than some people would like, and employers are waking up to the untapped skills that

potential returners, as they’ve become known, can bring to the table. A growing number of returners schemes are appearing

across the engineering and technology sector, in part bolstered by the fact the industry continues to face a chronic skills shortage.

According to the IET’s most recent ‘Engineering and Technology Skills and Demand in Industry’ report (2016), over half of UK employers (52 per cent) are currently seeking new engineering and technology recruits and 57 per cent are currently, or have

recently, experienced problems recruiting senior engineers with 5-10 years’ experience.

Throw into the hat that exactly half of the employers surveyed find that a typical new recruit doesn’t meet their reasonable

expectations, and you wonder why it’s only now they’re finally turning to this important but often overlooked talent pool of already qualified and skilled engineers and technologists. The growth of these schemes can also be attributed to the  government’s pledge to provide £5m to fund returnships, but diversity strategies are also making a difference, as Chris Thornton, maritime specialist at engineering recruitment firm Matchtech, points out. “Diversity is high on the agenda of firms within the engineering sector and returners schemes are a great opportunity for companies to target women in particular who might have taken a career break,” he says. “In addition, while companies tend not to struggle sourcing graduates and apprentices, they are finding it difficult to attract experienced mid to senior level engineers and managers. A returners programme is potentially a quicker way to find these candidates, tapping into a highly motivated talent pool who are perhaps struggling to get back on the career ladder.”

Businesses are now waking up to the many benefits a returner can offer them, including these ready-made professional and technical skills, which often only need a short period of refreshment. As Ferns highlights, they also offer organisational know-how, often referred to as a “readiness for work”.

Transferrable skills

“During periods away from the workplace, returners will often have developed transferable skills through a variety of other

roles, including good team-working and communications skills. As one returner put it: ‘I moved from a story where I hadn’t done

any work for nine years, to a story where I’ve never stopped working, applying my skills, solving problems and achieving continuous improvement’.”

“There is a much lower cost involved in upskilling or retraining a returner in comparison to starting from scratch with a

graduate, apprentice or young engineer,” agrees Thorton. “An effective returners scheme can also increase a company’s

resilience in scarce skill sets and disciplines, including management roles and capabilities.”

Over recent years we’ve seen a growing number of returners schemes being launched across the industry, from the

energy sector through to communications. Prospect, for example, in partnership with Equate Scotland, worked with several

engineering employers in the energy sector on a special returners trial programme. Through their involvement, the employers were able to demonstrate commitments on workforce equality and diversity, and also recognised the benefits of having an

additional pipeline into their business. Ferns notes that this programme was so successful  that it is currently being rolled out on a

larger stage. “The scheme Prospect was most directly involved with combined individual support with group workshops and webinars, networking opportunities and managed work placements. This is a model that worked well for both the individuals and employers involved,” she says. “Although it was logistically more challenging to run a programme involving several employers,

this paid off for all involved because it facilitated sharing of ideas, experience and mutual support.”

Tailored schemes

Thornton has been involved in another interesting scheme, this time with the UK Naval Engineering Science and Technology

Forum (UKNEST) and the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), centred around women within the naval enterprise. “They’re

currently piloting a returners scheme aimed at this group, which is a structured return to work process with a mix of vocational and educational support,” he says.

Most returners projects however, are business-specific, with companies developing their own bespoke programmes to support engineers looking to return to the sector. And what they entail can differ greatly; from short refresher training schemes and well-established networking groups through to 12-week paid internships or permanent position returner schemes. Large organisations offering such schemes include Amey, Arup, O2, PwC, Thames Tideway Tunnel and Vodafone, to name just a few. Often, there is a focus on women returning to work after having a family. “Many organisations are waking up to the fact that there is a vast untapped pool of talent standing at the school gates – experienced professionals with fresh perspectives and a wealth of valuable skills wanting to get back on the career ladder,” says Michelle Adams, director of talent and development at O2. “At O2, we set ourselves the challenge of finding and nurturing talent from this pool by launching our Career Returners programme last year.

Attracting women who have taken career breaks can help to broaden female representation in senior roles for example, but more than being the right thing to do, it also makes complete business sense. “What we’ve seen to date clearly shows that returners already have many of the skills and expertise to make them vital assets to any business, but are simply looking for the right platform and tailored training opportunities to realise their potential. They are proof of the skills and talent a lot of businesses are missing out on.” Tailored and flexible schemes are important, as Ferns herself highlights; there is no such thing as a standard returner. “Tailored support is essential to ensure that individuals feel empowered to take that first step back to work and that they make decisions that are appropriate for their circumstances,” she notes.

For those considering a career break or wanting to return to work after extended leave, there are now a wide variety of schemes, and practical support, on offer. Returners can seek advice from everyone from former colleagues, trade unions, professional bodies like the IET and organisations such as WES, and as a starting point, readers may be interested in downloading the joint IET/Prospect guidance document ‘Supporting the STEP back into STEM careers’ (see link below).

“This is a good starting point because it demystifies the whole process, sets out realistic expectations of all parties and

makes very clear the positive difference that small practical steps can make,” Ferns notes. *

To download the IET/Prospect guide for returners, go to:

By Keri Allan