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Return to work schemes | Balancing Tool

Caroline nesi 2crop

Return to work schemes are helping construction employers widen their recruitment pool and increase diversity. 

When Skanska specialist engineer and project manager Caroline Nesi recently interviewed candidates for a place on the firm’s return to work scheme, she could hardly believe that she had been sitting in the applicant’s chair just a year earlier.

But after taking a place on Skanska’s three-month long return to work scheme last year, Nesi is now fully embedded in the firm, working on noise mitigation plans for the construction of High Speed 2 (HS2).

Career break

She applied to the scheme after taking a career break of almost two years to raise her daughter and return to the UK. Nesi had previously worked in the oil and gas sector here but had temporarily returned to her native Brazil.

“I kept an eye on the schemes and thought the idea was quite good.

“They give you a taster and the opportunity to see if the move is what you want. The flexibility Skanska was offering and the values of the firm were attractive, so when they opened the programme I applied,” she says.

Return to work programmes are increasingly popular in the UK.

Typically they are aimed at people who have had career breaks, especially those who have stopped working to raise children. The idea is to offer professionals six months of paid work which reflects their skills and experience. Employers offer a supportive, flexible environment which allows participants time to work around the commitments which come with bringing up children or other caring responsibilities.

Diversity aid

Returnships are especially relevant as the construction sector strives to increase the diversity of its workforce in the face of ongoing skills shortages.

The Women Returners Professional Network had just three returnships on its books back in 2014, but this figure had jumped to more than 40 by 2017, including some in civil engineering among clients,  contractors and consultants.

Employers include Highways England, Network Rail, Tideway, Aecom, Mace and Skanska.

The programmes normally work by offering men and women who have been out of the workplace for more than two years a place on a three or six month paid programme, with the possibility of a permanent job.

Challenging return

For Nesi, the jump back into work was challenging. “It was tiring, even though my break wasn’t long. When you start again you remember what it’s like in the workplace and when I got home I just wanted to sleep for the first couple of weeks. But the atmosphere was good. I didn’t know how I would be treated, but I was another employee.”

Most firms say they place the applicant in a role matched to their previous seniority and skills level, while offering support and training to update their skills.

Aecom is starting a return to work scheme this year. Claire Wilkinson, the consultant’s senior HR manager says that it has taken on people who have had breaks of between two and 11 years for six month paid positions. The returnees, who started their placements in April, are male and female and have had varying reasons for the break although it is usually to care for children or other relatives.

“We see them as highly valuable individuals who can really provide a fresh pair of eyes, different perspectives,” says Wilkinson.

Rebuilding confidence

She says the scheme aims to help them rebuild their professional identity and confidence. The returnees went through an interview process and Aecom checked they had the necessary qualifications, attributes and skills to do the job. The consultant says that it can close skills gaps which have opened up during a career break by training returnees.

They are going into live jobs, in relatively senior positions, and are teamed up with a buddy who will support them on a day-to-day basis, as well as a mentor to help them navigate their broader career.

But how do the other team members find it works for them?

“From their perspective it’s a new member of the team, just as capable as anyone else being employed at that level,” says Wilkinson. “They are a new starter and this is the role they are doing, they just happen to be on the returner programme. We don’t make too much of it because they have the skills and experience to do the job.”

Wilkinson says Aecom is bringing in these schemes as part of an effort to increase the gender diversity of its workforce. This is not just because it is the right thing to do, but because employers now recognise there is an untapped talent market and there is a business benefit to having a more diverse workforce in terms of coming up with more innovative solutions.

Small firms

Global consultants and construction firms have the large human resources departments to implement full returnship programmes, but how can  small and medium enterprises (SMEs) fit into the equation?

Civic Engineers is a consultancy with fewer than 100 staff, but it is looking at running a return to work programme.

Its HR manager Caroline Todd has been examining industry best practice and says those taking part in any programme should be paid and that the programmes should be tailored to suit those most likely to take part, such as women returning to work after taking time out to raise children.

They could include elements such as flexible hours and a September start when children have gone back to school after the summer holidays.  

“One of our aims is to increase gender diversity,” she says.

“This is one of the ways we think we can do this. We’re trying to influence school children to follow a career in engineering and as part of that we want to say if you take a career break you can still have your career.

Diverse is good

“We’re problem solvers and the more diverse our teams are, the better able we are as a business to come up with innovative, creative solutions. If you’ve just got a particular type of engineer, you don’t get that broad view. We need to harness as many views as possible. We need to have a team.”

Todd says day-to-day support is essential for people on returnship schemes, particularly those who have caring commitments.

“It can be stressful with a lot of guilt attached, so as an employer you have to understand that and recognise it. We say it’s fine if someone can’t come in at the time they were intending because something has happened. It is about output and trust and if you treat someone like that, they’re better at their job.

“They don’t need to be worrying about having to explain themselves. As an employer, you have to be understanding and put yourself in their shoes.

“Your children are the most important thing but you also want to be able to have a career and be able to use the skills you have.”

Return to work schemes are not exclusively for women, but many employers now see them as a way to help increase gender diversity, close the gender pay gap and ultimately offer better solutions to clients. N

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