Third of returners experience ‘skills downgrading’ when going back to work, government report finds

Experts warn ‘change will be slow’ unless organisations can recognise untapped talent pools

Third of returners experience ‘skills downgrading’ when going back to work, government report finds

Almost a third (30 per cent) of people returning to work after a career break come back at a lower level, a report from the Government Equalities Office (GEO) found yesterday. 

The analysis of workplace returners – people who have been economically inactive for more than a year because they are looking after the family or the home – identified 1.2 million potential returners in the UK, equating to 15 per cent of the total workforce. The vast majority (91 per cent) are female. 

Roughly a third (30 per cent) of potential returners were more likely to have worked in lower-skill occupations before leaving, but the report warned the break often served to widen the gap between them and the average worker. The majority of workplace returners face fewer hours and lower wages, the report found, with smaller proportions of returners in permanent or supervisory work compared with those who don’t take a break. 

Only a quarter (24 per cent) of returners re-enter the workplace at a higher level than the one at which they left. Just 12 per cent of women and 19 per cent of men were able to return to a supervisory role in the workplace, compared with 34 per cent and 44 per cent respectively who did not take a career break. 

Female returners from black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds were also more likely to find work when they decided to end their career break.

The report’s publication follows the government’s announcement of a £5m fund for returnships in the 2017 spring Budget, which would specifically target industries where women were underrepresented. In March this year, the government revealed an additional £1.5m Returners Fund to help private sector companies assist individuals looking to return to the workplace.

The study also proposed introducing more training opportunities for those in low-skilled roles. Welcoming this particular suggestion, Lisa Unwin, founder of returnships consultancy She’s Back, described the lack of support for returning women as “criminal”. 

“If [businesses and government] were prepared to invest something in reaching women, it would be a solution to their skills shortages, because so many people are chasing the same skills but not taking advantage of a significant untapped talent pool,” she told People Management.

“Longer-term issues such as gender pay reporting will never be solved unless more women are placed in senior positions, and until organisations recognise the need for talented people change will be slow.”

The GEO report also called on the government to focus on caring responsibilities, such as improving the affordability and provision of childcare. 

This suggestion follows the recent introduction of a private members’ bill, raised by Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson, which – if passed – would require businesses to publish details of the parental leave and pay arrangements. Although the bill had cross-party support, it was blocked at its second reading in the House of Commons earlier this month. The second reading has been rescheduled for the end of November.