What is a returnship - and how can you find one?

Friendly african american woman standing with arms crossed in a modern bright office
Friendly african american woman standing with arms crossed in a modern bright office

Theresa May has promised a £5 million 'returnship' initiative to support women back to work after a career break.

Many women - and, these days, quite a few men - take time out from their careers to care for young children or elderly relatives, only to find it hard to get back into the workforce when they are ready.

Employers often overlook the years of experience such people have - preferring younger candidates who have been in work more recently. Last year, PwC reported that three-fifths of professional women returning to the workforce in the UK move into lower-skilled and lower-paid jobs than they had before.

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While the amount pledged by the government is small, May says it will be used to broaden out existing return-to-work schemes.

"Returnships are open to both men and women but we should acknowledge that, more often than not, it is women who give up their careers to devote themselves to motherhood, only to find the route back into employment closed off – the doors shut to them," she said.

"This isn't right, it isn't fair and it doesn't make economic sense. So I want to see this scheme extended to all levels of management and into industries where women are under-represented."

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So what exactly is a returnship, and how can you find one?

Returnships originated in the financial sector, with Goldman Sachs launching a scheme in the US in 2008. They arrived in the UK six years later, with investment banks Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank.

By last year, 23 schemes were in place, with 90% of placements being offered to women. They typically last between three and six months and focus on bringing returners' technology skills up to date, boosting their confidence through coaching and getting them used to the corporate environment again.

And they involve real, paid work.

Coaching network Women Returners has a list of returnships available this year. While some have already closed for applications, there are plenty left, from a six-month programme at the Home Office to a software development returnship at Oracle.

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Vodafone, meanwhile, has expanded its ReConnect scheme just this week - and the pilot appears to have been a success. Burcu Erdur, for example, took a three-year break from work, but is now a senior manager with Vodafone Turkey after taking part in the scheme.

Says Burcu: "I felt like my career break wiped clean all of my previous career achievements; it was as if I had never worked. It is very hard being a working mum but it is manageable with the right support. ReConnect gave me this."