supporting people back to STEM

By Julianne Miles, Women Returners and Natalie Desty, STEM Returners

Despite the critical need for skilled professionals in the UK tech and engineering sectors, many thousands of parents and carers with STEM experience face an uphill battle when they want to return to their chosen fields after a career break. A new partnership between our organisations, Women Returners and STEM Returners, together with the UK Government Equality Hub, is helping parents and carers in the Midlands and North of England to overcome these challenges.

The latest projections suggest a net growth in engineering roles of 2.8% compared to 2.3% in all occupations, which will result in 173,000 new engineering and technology jobs by 2030*. Estimates from Microsoft suggest there will be 149 million new jobs in software, data, AI, machine learning and cyber by 2025 around the world, and a recent report from Tech Talent Charter and Code First Girls stated that half of women in tech drop out by the age of 35**.

According to UK Government figures, there are currently 75,000 people, the majority of whom are women, who are economically inactive in the UK due to caring responsibilities and who had a STEM occupation before their career break. When these parents and carers want to get back to work, they often suffer from low self-confidence and a loss of work networks. This low confidence is exacerbated if they apply for jobs through mainstream online recruitment, where they may well encounter recruiter bias against candidates without recent experience. As a result, too many of these STEM professionals retrain or take on work far below their skill level.

North-South Divide

Returner programmes have gone some way to addressing the return-to-work challenges, but there is a North-South divide we want to tackle. Our analysis showed that the North of England and the Midlands 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.

Support for Returners

Our STEM ReCharge programme aims to lower these barriers, by supporting individuals and training employers. To even up returner activity around the UK, the programme is targeted at the Midlands and North of England.

The project will provide free-of-charge, work-readiness support to 100 parents and carers with tech or engineering experience who have taken career breaks over a year or more. The comprehensive programme includes return-to-work career coaching, job skills training and sector-specific upskilling and mentoring. This tackles both the practical and the psychological barriers to returning, supporting returners to rebuild their confidence, improve their self-marketing, develop their networks, balance work and caring, write a back-to-work CV and hone interview skills. Partner organisations have also delivered invaluable update sessions on a variety of tech and engineering topics for participants.

So far, more than 40 parents and carers have completed the programme. The programme has already had a positive impact on participants like Priyanka Bondre. Priyanka left her job in India in 2019 to join her husband in the UK and then took an extended career break to care for their young daughter. Despite a bachelor’s degree in computer science, an MBA in IT Management and more than 10 years’ experience in IT, she still found it difficult to get back into the workplace when she was ready to resume her career. With her daughter starting school in September, STEM ReCharge came at just the right time and was the boost she needed.

“It has been wonderful to be a part of the STEM Recharge programme,” Priyanka said. “The programme gave me a confidence boost to resume my professional journey. I am enrolled in a Data Engineer bootcamp and thrilled to reskill and re-enter the workforce!”

We’re really looking forward to welcoming the second returner cohort in October. Returners can apply for the programme here.

Support for Employers

Over the last nine years, our organisations have been working with employers to make their recruitment and onboarding more inclusive for returners. We have seen encouraging 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 are very positive about the expertise and fresh perspective that returners bring to their teams. This positive change is happening across the STEM sector, but too slowly.

To accelerate the change, STEM ReCharge is providing free-of-charge Returner-Friendly Employer Training sessions to employers in the target regions.  This is to update their practices and educate their teams in being more inclusive for returners.

As a result, we’re optimistic that the programme will not only enable 100 talented returners to get back into great jobs but will also contribute to longer-term change in employer attitudes and behaviours towards career returners in the Midlands and the North.