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Advice for for getting back to work after a career break


Elaine Russell

Head of Women Returners Ireland

If you spend any time at the school gates in Dublin, Cork or towns around Ireland, you will meet many women like her: you’ll find highly educated engineers, project managers and software developers standing alongside lawyers, accountants and consultants, all now at home looking after their children.

Women have been told they can have it all. They outperform at school and at college, set themselves ambitious goals, and then find themselves set adrift when it comes to having families and working.

Ireland has failed to reap the returns on a pool of highly educated and skilled women.

Data shows that up to the age of about 30, women keep pace with men in the workforce. After that, however, a hefty gap opens up, with just 64 per cent of women working compared with over 70 per cent of men.

A World Economic Forum (WEF) gender gap report from last year placed Ireland top of the table for educational attainment. However, when it came to economic participation and opportunity, Ireland slumped to 49th, due to lower female participation rates and lower average earnings for women.

The WEF report notes, a large number of countries – Ireland included – “have failed to reap the returns on a pool of highly educated and skilled women”.

Return to work challenges

Whether it’s to take some time out to be at home with your family, look after elderly parents, or start your own business, there are plenty of reasons that professionals step off the career path. But, when it’s time to get back on, it can feel very daunting.

The majority of people who step out of organisations don’t do it with the intention of leaving permanently.

”The majority of people who step out of organisations don’t do it with the intention of leaving permanently,” said Elaine Russell, who has set up the Irish branch of  Women Returners, an organisation that has helped hundreds of professional women to get back into the workforce. Studies have found that 75 per cent of women on career breaks intend to return to the workforce when the time is right.

Russell said a number of factors – external and internal – keep women from going back. “Some of the reasons can be personal to the individual who may doubt their own skills and be asking themselves, “Am I still relevant? Has the workplace moved on too much? Am I too old? Will any employer be interested in me after such a long break?”

These are typical questions that people ask themselves when they are considering returning.” Others relate to the job market, where applicants without recent experience rarely make it through traditional recruitment routes.

Steps to get back to work

From our experience at Women Returners, one of the most common ‘returner’ mistakes is to launch straight into an unfocussed job search. This approach is more likely to dent fragile self-confidence than get someone back to a satisfying job. We suggest the following steps to a successful route back to work:

1.     Start by getting clear about the type of role and organisation you want to target. What energises and motivates you? Do you prefer managerial or technical roles, operational or strategic work? Use this thinking to identify the types of activity and environment which suit you best.

2.     Make sure you know how to sell yourself. Start by writing down all your strengths and skills. Ask friends and family for feedback on great things you have done and use those stories to pick out other skills. Then craft your ‘career story’. Outline your pre-break work experience and qualifications. Give a brief explanation of your break – don’t apologise or justify – and do mention any relevant study, projects or volunteering. Finish with a short description of the type of work you are now targeting.

3.     Get up-to-date with your sector news and trends. Start reading articles. It’s also a great idea to meet ex-colleagues and discuss what is going on for them and the current challenges and opportunities facing your sector.

4.     Many mid to senior roles in Ireland are filled through the hiring manager’s network so your contacts are important. So, get networking! Tell friends, family and acquaintances what you are looking for as you never know who might have just the right contact for you.

Each of these steps support rebuilding your professional network.

Returnship is the new internship

In the UK, we have succeeded in starting to change the conversation around returners. Employers are recognising that this high-calibre and motivated group can help to increase gender and age diversity, and fill talent gaps.

Returnships’: higher-level, paid internships to support a route back to mid-to-senior-level roles.

Central to this change of employer mindset has been the introduction of ‘returnships’: higher-level paid internships tailored to create a supported route back to mid-to-senior-level roles for returning professionals. Returnships range from three to six months, with a strong possibility of an ongoing role at the end. While the majority of participants are women, programmes are open to anyone, male or female, who has taken a long career break.

Employers get access to an untapped, high-calibre candidate pool, with the opportunity of a built-in trial period to reduce the perceived risk. Returners take on professionally paid work using their existing skills and experience, and receive support from the employer in terms of training, mentoring and often coaching to enable them to rapidly rebuild their professional confidence and skills.

What’s Next for Ireland?

We’re now taking our learnings from the UK market to introduce returnships and other returner programmes into Ireland in a way that works for both business and the returners.

If your organisation is concerned about skills gaps or diversity at mid to senior levels, encourage them to consider returners and the returnship model as a mutually beneficial way to target a valuable new group of talented employees.

You can find more tips and inspiring success stories from other returners at www.womenreturners.ie.

Elaine Russell is head of Women Returners in Ireland:

Women Returners is a consulting, coaching and networking organisation that works with individuals and organisations to create supported routes back to work for experienced professionals after a long career break. 

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