Returnships – Women in IT

The Times ran an article last week on the current buzzword in employment: “Returnships”. I understand these to be paid work placements designed to help women resume their careers after a break. The Government has been pondering for over a year and has now recommended that firms should create paid returnships together with training and support. This is an obvious route into attracting women back into technology after a career break. IT leaders will need to think creatively and flexibly about how this could work and create packages which are attractive to both sides. The nature of much of the work in IT, however, whether working on projects as a PM/BA or in the more technical support roles, does lend itself to this model. Talent, skills and experience shortages continue to add to IT leaders’ list of woes, and this concept of re-engaging with a talented pool of experienced people could go some significant way to addressing key skills gaps. Areas for IT hiring managers to consider might include:-

Part time working

This can work and does work but needs careful planning. Most employment in technology is still 5 days a week both for permanent and contract work. Employers being flexible on this requirement will probably be a factor in attracting people back into the profession, especially initially. My personal experience is that someone working in a highly focused way for say three days a week can be as productive as someone working five. There clearly needs to be unambiguous agreement on contact and communications on the non-working days, but it can work if planned and thought about up front.

Flexible working

This seems to be getting a lot of traction in the companies I work with and will be a key factor in attracting and retaining talent. Flexible hours and home/remote working would clearly support women with family commitments and it works best for those who have experience anyway, so trust and productivity won’t be issues. Being explicit up front about what flexibility means is key in removing ambiguity.

Technical Skills refresh

IT managers are obviously keen in hiring candidates with current technical skills. However, looking seriously at a candidate that has the track record, experience and desire to refresh their skills can pay huge dividends in the medium or longer term. Having a proven track record in technology should trump having the most up to date skills any day, as long as there is an agreed path to re-skilling. The Returnship model refreshingly puts a formalised training plan at the heart of its model.

Part time contracts

The traditional contractor model is in some respects even more inflexible than permanent work, with a rigid expectation (sometimes on both the employer and the contractor side) of five days a week working, standard hours and mostly in the office. I would question whether IT hiring managers actually want this model or whether it’s just such an accepted rule of contracting that no one bothers to question it and even if hirers want to explore something different, where they would source the candidates? I think many women technologists considering returning to the profession would be more interested in part time contracts either on a weekly basis or, even more radically, dipping in and out of projects when actually needed.

In summary

Returnships are currently gaining some traction in the City, with specialist agencies being set up which help skilled women return to work. There is no reason at all why this model could not translate into IT as returnees would have the same characteristics as described by Dominie Moss, the founder of Return Hub. She says that “employers gained from grown-up and experienced staff and that returners are a highly engaged and motivated group. They have already climbed the ladder once and want to get back on it”. Returning women in IT have had to climb a particularly difficult ladder in their careers and if employers can design and implement flexible packages there is no reason why this can’t start to fill the skills gap in some small way.

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