Inspiring inclusion is the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day and brings issues of belonging and diversity to the fore. Investec recently spoke to Julianne Miles, a social entrepreneur and the CEO of Career Returners. Founded in 2014 as Women Returners, the organisation runs a support network for 9,000 experienced professionals re-entering the workforce following career breaks. It has partnered with more than 170 employers to create supported routes back to work for over 3,000 professionals and also deliver large-scale Government-funded return to work programmes.

In recognition of her social impact, Julianne was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and Equality in Queen Elizabeth II’s Birthday Honours in 2019.

Investec: In 2024, many businesses run programmes to help people back into work following career breaks. But what was the landscape like when you were getting started?

Julianne Miles: The world was very different for returners ten years ago. There were few routes back into the workforce for people who had taken a long career break for childcare, eldercare, health or other reasons. Returners were not on the radar of employers or the Government. Media articles on the topic equated a career break with career suicide. This led to a huge waste of skills for business, society and the economy.

However, in 2014 organisations were starting to say they wanted to have a more gender diverse workforce. I realised there was a need to create a bridge between these employers and female professionals returning from career breaks. We set up Women Returners (as we were then), to create return to work pathways and provide access to this hard-to-reach talent pool, as well as training and support for both organisations and returners.

Investec: What is a returnship and what do employers need to do to make them a success?

JM: A returnship is a supported route back to work for experienced professionals who have taken a career break of anything from 18 months to 30 years. An employer offers a fixed-term contract, typically for six months, with a strong intent to hire at the end of that period. Returners take on meaningful roles and we provide a wrapper of support for returners, recruiters and hiring managers. We aim to get a minimum of 80% of participants into ongoing roles.

As returnships aren’t a good fit for all employers, we also offer a variety of other supportive returner pathways, such as ‘supported hiring’ directly into permanent roles.

Investec: In what way has the nature of the career break changed in the last ten years?

JM: When I first started, our focus was on women who had taken a break for childcare or eldercare. Although the vast majority of our network are still women, we now support a broad range of returners of all genders, including those who have taken breaks for physical or mental health, bereavement, relocation, travel or even as refugees.

Most of our returner community have at least ten years of professional experience, in areas such as finance, tech, project management, law, HR and marketing. The average length of career break is four to six years, but many people are successfully back in work via returnships after breaks of ten years or more, with one individual back at the Bank of England after a 30-year career break.

Investec: Are there any programmes for returners that stand out for you?

JM: A great example of sector-based collaboration is a cross-company returner programme we developed in partnership with the Diversity Project, an employer-led body to increase diversity in the savings and investment sector. We have been running the programme since 2020 bringing over 70 returners back into professional roles with multiple employers. In the last two years 90-92% of participants have converted to ongoing roles after the initial six-month returnship.
 

Julianne Miles MBE
Julianne Miles MBE, Co-founder and CEO of Career Returners

There is clear evidence, from hundreds of returner programmes over the past decade, that returners can very quickly get back up to speed, if the right support and structures are in place.

 

Investec: You’re a Chartered Psychologist. What barriers can returners face from a psychological perspective?

JM: The biggest issue, and the one that's virtually ubiquitous, is a big reduction in confidence – more specifically, a loss of professional identity and belief that they can get back to a fulfilling role. This is exacerbated if returners feel a pressure to hit the ground running on day one, when magnified imposter syndrome can kick in.

Investec: What can leaders or founders do to make their working environments more welcoming to returners?

JM: The best starting point is to understand and promote the business case for hiring returners, alongside the societal rationale of inclusive hiring. Returners are a strong talent pool and bring maturity, a fresh perspective and diversity of thought and experience.

The next step is to review your recruitment processes. We know from US research studies that most hiring managers would rather take somebody who is less qualified than somebody who has been out of work for just six months. There is even more recruitment bias against people who have taken a break for caring reasons. Are you rejecting candidates just because they have gaps on their CV? Are you offering transition support, such as training, mentoring and coaching, to set returners up for success?

In terms of other policies, I do encourage employers to offer flexibility at point of hire for all new employees, in line with the working patterns already available to existing team members. This will bring much wider benefits in attracting diverse candidates, beyond career returners.

Investec: What is the future for returners? What progress would you like to see?

JM: The landscape for returners is hugely improved, but we still have a long way to go to achieve our mission of removing the career break penalty. I would like to see far more employers embracing the concept of being a career returner inclusive employer. As a society we need to acknowledge that, if we are working for 40 to 50 years, most people are all going to want or need to take career breaks at some point, for some reason.

There is clear evidence, from hundreds of returner programmes over the past decade, that returners can very quickly get back up to speed, if the right support and structures are in place.
 

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