According to government figures, there are currently 75,000 people, the majority of whom are women, who are economically inactive due to caring responsibilities and had a STEM occupation before their career break.

There is also a known skills shortage within STEM - the Royal Academy of Engineering has estimated that UK engineering employers need to recruit 182,000 engineers annually to keep up with demand and suggested that firms need to double its recruitment of graduates and apprentices to meet the shortfall.

It makes sense that recruiting the 75,0000 people who took a break to care for a loved one and want to return to work in the future will help plug that skills gap. But these returners face an uphill battle in getting noticed and recruited.

Recruitment bias is the main barrier returners face when trying to get back to work – there is a perception that a career break automatically leads to a deterioration of skills.

But the reality is, that many people on a career break keep themselves up to date with their industry, can refresh their skills easily when back in work and have developed new transferable skills that would actually benefit their employers.

Nevertheless, this group of people receive rejection after rejection and sometimes do not even hear from a potential employer, which has a huge negative impact on the returner psychologically and practically.

Which is why we are delighted to be partnering with the Government Equality Hub on the STEM ReCharge programme, to provide free-of-charge return to work career coaching, job skills training and sector-specific upskilling and mentoring to parents and carers with tech or engineering experience who have taken career breaks over a year or more.

Throughout the 18-month pilot, career coaching and job skills training will address these practical and psychological barriers, to rebuild confidence, balance work and caring, write a back to work CV and hone interview skills.

We hope that small group sessions will encourage motivating return-to-work support networks that will continue even after the pilot has concluded.

This important programme will provide parents and carers the opportunity they deserve to reach the desired goal of getting back to the industry they love and echoes other calls for more help to support parents and carers in returning to work and helping them break out of the economically active bubble, which since the pandemic has seen a sharp rise.

Julianne Miles

Julianne Miles, Co-founder of Women Returners

Natalie Desty

Natalie Desty, Founder of STEM Returners

North south divide

There are many examples of a north south divide in society and sadly returner programmes are no different.

Our analysis showed these areas have far fewer returner programmes than southern areas. From 2020 to 2022 there were 1.6 returner programmes per million people in the Midlands, 2.3 programmes in the North East and Yorkshire and 2.5 programmes in the North West, compared with 7.8 programmes in London and 5.3 programmes in the South West.

Therefore, STEM ReCharge is being rolled out across the West and East Midlands, the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber and the North West to ensure parents and carers in these areas are not left behind.

Employer support

Updating traditional standardised recruitment methods that search for the ‘unicorn’ candidate is key in challenging unconscious biases and making recruitment processes more inclusive and open.

Over the years our organisations have been working with recruiters, we have seen improvements in culture and practices. Returners who we work with tell us of the support they receive and how they feel they are contributing to the firm’s vision, while recruiters and managers tell us about the expertise the candidate has brought to the project.

This is positive change and it is happening across the sector, but slowly.

To help ramp up this improvement, STEM ReCharge will include employer training sessions for organisations to start to update their practices and educate their teams in being more inclusive for the returner. We will be hosting special employer engagement events in Leeds, Birmingham and Liverpool in April for organisations to learn from the experience of successful returner employers.

We hope these events will act as a starting point to change a culture that views a career breaks negatively instead of a completely normal part of many people’s working life.

There is a pressing need across the STEM sector and in particular in midlands and north to provide this job-readiness support tailored to parents and carers returning to STEM. By providing the support to the individual alongside training for STEM employers, we will create more supported routes back to work for career returners. We’re confident that this comprehensive programme of support will help to accelerate the removal of the career break penalty in the UK, and we cannot wait to get started.

Returners can apply for the STEM ReCharge programme here.

Women Returners and STEM returners also organise Employer Insights events, details of which can be found here:

LEEDS: Monday 24 April, 0930 to 1100, Bruntwood Scitech, Platform, New Station St, Leeds LS1 4JB. Supported by Leeds City Council.

Book here

LIVERPOOL: Tuesday 25 April, 0930 to 1100, The Women’s Organisation, 54 St James St, Liverpool L1 0AB. Supported by the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority.

Book here

BIRMINGHAM: Wednesday 26 April, 0930 to 1100, Birmingham City Centre location TBC. Supported by the West Midlands Combined Authority.

Book here