Two Female College Students Building Machine In Science Robotics Or Engineering Class

Article by Natalie Desty, Director of STEM Returners

Everyone who works in a STEM (science, technology, engineering or mathematics) role knows one simple fact – there are not enough of us.

Last year, the Royal Academy of Engineering estimated that UK engineering employers will need to recruit 182,000 engineers annually to keep up with demand and suggested that the UK would need to double its recruitment of graduates and apprentices to meet the shortfall.

To recruit this many people seems like an uphill task – but there is a group of talented, passionate and educated people who are willing and able to take on these roles and help plug the gap, but they are being over looked.

Thousands of STEM professionals across the UK who have had a career break find it incredibly difficult to get a job and are the victims of outdated recruitment methods that prevent them from getting an interview, let alone being offered the role.

Unconscious bias at the shortlisting stage, hiring pressures leading to assumptions made on limited information, and the common misconception that a ‘CV gap’ equates to a deterioration of skills are all reasons for not being given a chance. These hidden barriers mean talented professionals are being left behind, which is damaging the UK economy as well as seriously hindering efforts to improve diversity in STEM.

In May, the STEM Returners Index, our annual survey of a nationally representative group of over 750 STEM professionals who are on a career break and attempting to return to work or recently returned, revealed how challenging they were finding it.

Sixty-one percent of STEM professionals on a career break said they were finding the process of attempting to return to work either difficult or very difficult, compared to just 6% of respondents finding the process easy.

More than a third (36%) of returners said they felt that bias in the recruitment process was a barrier to them personally returning to their career and the commented that they regularly experience an incorrect perception that their CV gap has automatically led to a deterioration of skills, with hiring managers undervaluing their experience before they have a chance to prove themselves.

However, the reality, from our experience, is that returners pick up many new and transferable skills whilst on their career break, have generally kept themselves up to date with their industry throughout their break, and are able to quickly refresh their skills when back in a work environment. A gap on someone’s CV should not put them at the bottom of the pile.

Sadly, gender and ethnicity are also perceived as a barrier. In the survey, 27% of women said they feel they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their gender compared to 8% of men, while 30% of women said they feel they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to childcare responsibilities compared to 6% of men.

Sixty-seven percent of BME respondents said they are finding it difficult or very difficult to return to work, compared to 57% white British respondents.

This negatively contributes to an industry, which already has a concerning lack of diversity.  The current UK engineering workforce is 92% male and 94% white, which makes the barriers to returners even more counter intuitive.  The pool of STEM professionals attempting to return to industry is 51% female and 38% BME compared to 10% female and 6% BME working in industry.

Change is happening but slowly.

More and more UK companies are waking up to the fact that there is a hidden workforce at their fingertips. We are working with leading engineering and STEM firms to implement our Returners Programme, which results in high quality hires to fulfil existing and future contracts.

Across our STEM Returner programmes, 46% of professionals have been female, 34% from BME backgrounds and 96% of all returners have been retained by the host company after the placement.

Attracting and recruiting returners as a separate strategy works alongside standard recruitment as it removes conflicting priorities, reduces the opportunity for line managers searching for ‘their’ perception of the best candidate and create equal opportunity for returners to be considered. Internationally renowned STEM firms like BAE Systems, SSE and Leonardo, UK, have already embraced this way of working, which is a good step forward.

We are proud to be making a difference, but there is more work to do. With tough times lying ahead, we need to use every available drop of talent in the STEM sectors. It can be done – STEM Returners programmes are the proof of that. But whilst we celebrate those skills returned to the sector, it is imperative that the industry comes together to build on them. The UK needs more STEM organisations, industry leaders and hiring managers to take note and think more broadly about how they access this hidden talent pool, giving talented professionals a fair chance. Collectively we should not stop until we’ve created a level playing field for returners, put an end to unconscious bias in recruitment processes, and removed the hidden barriers returners face today.

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