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The STEM Returners Index 2022 | STEM Returners

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The STEM Returners Index is an annual survey with UK STEM professionals who are on a career break, attempting to return to work or recently returned.

We know that STEM professionals on career breaks face hidden barriers when attempting to return to work. The STEM Returners Index aims to further understand these barriers, track the progress UK STEM industries are making with solving them, and shine a light on the change needed to create fair opportunities for all.

This year we are pleased to launch the 2nd annual STEM Returners Index, based on a survey completed by over 1000 STEM professionals in April 2022.

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Recruitment bias preventing talented engineers from returning to work after a career break

Returning to work, recruitment bias, Unhappy woman with resume rejected by employer vector flat illustration.

Bias in the recruitment process prevents STEM professionals who have had a career break return to employment, according to a new survey by STEM Returners.

The STEM Returners Index, published on International Women in Engineering Day, showed bias against age, gender and lack of recent experience to be the main barriers to entry.

The Index asked more than 1,000 STEM professionals on a career break a range of questions to understand their experiences of trying to re-enter the STEM sector.

of women feel they've experienced bias in recruitment

of women think childcare responsibilities are a barrier to returning to work

of men more likely to be victim of age-related bias

Nearly a third of women said they feel they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their gender compared to seven per cent of men.

Despite 39 per cent of females wanting to return to work due to children now being of school age, 40 per cent of females still feel childcare responsibilities are a barrier to returning due to lack of flexibility offered by employers.

In the survey, men (46 per cent) were more likely to be victim of bias because of their age compared to women (38 per cent). Bias also appears to become more prevalent with age, with more than half of over 55’s saying they have experienced personal bias, compared to as low as 23 per cent in younger age groups.

The Index also asked returners about the impact of Covid on their experience. 34 per cent said the pandemic made getting back to work more difficult than it would have been already. It would also appear that for many people, Covid was the catalyst for a career break that they might not have taken otherwise, as 36 per cent said Covid was a factor in their decision to take a career break. Redundancy was also on the rise year on year as a reason for career breaks according to the results.

STEM Returners has conducted the STEM Returners Index for the past two years. The programme helps highly qualified and experienced STEM professionals return to work after a career break by working with employers to facilitate paid short-term employment placements. More than 260 engineers have returned to work through the scheme across the UK since it began in 2017.

Speaking about the findings, Natalie Desty, Director of STEM Returners, said, “We know that the engineering sector faces a significant skills shortage and yet this group of talented and dedicated individuals are still overlooked.”

“It’s disappointing to see that 66 per cent of STEM professionals on a career break are finding the process of attempting to return to work either difficult or very difficult and that nearly half (46 per cent) of participants said they felt bias because of a lack of recent experience.”

“This situation is being made even harder with more redundancies and more people wanting to return to work due to uncertainty about the economy and the rising cost of living leading to a wider pool of potential returners.”

“There is a perception that a career break automatically leads to a deterioration of skills.”

“But the reality is, that many people on a career break keep themselves up to date with their industry, can refresh their skills easily when back in work and have developed new transferable skills that would actually benefit their employers.”

“Industry leaders need to do more to update recruitment practices and challenge unconscious bias to help those who are finding it challenging to return to the sector and improve diversity and inclusion within their organisations.”

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Have you re-entered the STEM sector after a career break? Help STEM Returners understand the challenges faced by those returning to work

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Have you returned to the STEM sector following a career break? Tell STEM Returners about your experiences.

STEM Returners has launched its annual survey to understand STEM professionals’ experiences of trying to re-enter the sector after a career break.

The STEM Returners Index is open to all STEM professions who have had a gap in their career or who are attempting to return to work or who have recently returned to work.

The survey is anonymous and will ask a variety of questions including reasons for a career break, what challenges were faced when attempting to return to work and what impact COVID-19 had on finding a role.

This is the third Index launched by STEM Returners, which returns highly qualified and experienced STEM professionals to work after a career break by working with employers to facilitate paid short-term employment placements.

STEM Returners was set up by Natalie Desty in 2017 after she saw how hard it was for STEM professionals who had been out of employment for a period of time, to re-enter their profession.

Natalie DestySpeaking about the survey Natalie said, “We know that the UK engineering industry needs hundreds of engineers annually to keep up with demand, but despite this need, there is a pool of STEM professionals on a career break who find it incredibly challenging to return to work – recruitment bias being the main barrier to entry.”

“We want to get more insight into the challenges STEM professionals face when wanting to return to work and how the last two years of the pandemic has effected that process.”

“We can use this valuable information to work with employers and improve their recruitment processes and enable them to see that a gap on someone’s CV does not automatically lead to a deterioration of skills.”

“I would like to personally encourage any STEM professional who has had a career break to take part in the survey and tell us about their experiences.”

“Our last Index had more than 750 respondents, this year we’d like to get more than 1000.”

The 2022 STEM Returners Index will be open until 30 April 2022.

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In last year’s survey, both men (39 per cent) and women (43 per cent) said they felt they had personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to a perceived lack of recent experience.

Nearly a third of female respondents said they had personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their gender while 22 per cent of respondents said they feel they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their race or ethnicity. Additionally, 67 per cent of BME respondents said they are finding it difficult or very difficult to return to work.

The STEM Returners’ programme aims to eliminate these barriers, by giving candidates real work experience and mentoring during their placement and helping them to seamlessly adjust to life back in work. Programmes have been set up with internationally renowned firms including BAE Systems, Leonardo UK, Babcock International and SSE, with more than 200 candidates joining programmes across the UK.

Katie Ireland, STEM ReturnersGeoscientist Katie Ireland made the difficult decision to leave her role to focus on raising her children.

As her children began to get older, she wanted to return to the role she loved. But unfortunately, returning to work after a break was not an easy process.

Instead of recognising that Katie’s time out had made her a more rounded geoscientist, the career break penalty meant she faced rejection when trying to re-enter the industry.

She explained: “My five-year career break had a major impact on how I viewed myself and ultimately my confidence. My confidence was at an all-time low, my memory and ability to retain information was poor and this didn’t come across well. It was hard to explain to others and so difficult for them to empathise.

“I came across the STEM Returners role with Ørsted and thought the term “STEM Returner” perfectly described what I was trying to do.”

Katie took part in a returners programme with Ørsted and has now been made a permanent member of staff. With decarbonisation and the move towards renewable energy, Katie’s career path will be one that is well-trodden over the coming years in STEM.

“The opportunity (at Ørsted) has changed my career in so many ways. Not only has it allowed me to return to work after a career break, but it has given me the chance to transition from oil and gas to the renewables sector.”

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woman wearing a white lab coat working on an engineering project, International Women in Engineering Day

Female engineers are more likely to be victims of recruitment bias when trying to get back to work

woman wearing a white lab coat working on an engineering project, International Women in Engineering Day

Women trying to return to the engineering industry after a career break are more likely to experience recruitment bias than men, according to a survey by STEM Returners.

The survey, published on International Women in Engineering Day, showed 27% of women feel they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their gender, compared to 8% of men. Furthermore, 30% of women said they feel they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to childcare responsibilities compared to 6% of men.

STEM Returners, based in Hampshire, is an organisation which returns highly qualified and experienced STEM professionals after a career break by working with employers to facilitate paid short-term employment placements. More than 150 engineers have returned to work through the scheme.

Natalie Desty, Director of STEM Returners, said: “The UK engineering industry needs to recruit 182,000 engineers annually to keep up with demand – this is not news. But despite this very clear and desperate skills shortage, 61% of STEM professionals on a career break are finding the process of attempting to return to work either difficult or very difficult and women are bearing the brunt of this challenge.

“There is a perception that a career break automatically leads to a deterioration of skills. But the reality is, that many people on a career break keep themselves up to date with their industry, are able to refresh their skills easily when back in work and have developed new transferable skills that would actually benefit their employers.

“STEM organisations are clearly missing a major opportunity to get highly skilled, talented females back into the industry.”

The STEM Returners Index, which was carried out in collaboration with the Women’s Engineering Society, surveyed a group of more than 750 STEM professionals on a career break who are attempting to return to work or who have recently returned to work.

More than half of respondents looking to return to work have been on a career break for less than two years and around 36% of returners felt that bias in the recruitment process was a barrier to them personally returning to their career.

The survey revealed that the pool of STEM professionals attempting to return to industry is significantly more diverse than the average STEM organisation. Over half of the survey respondents attempting to return to work were female and 38% were from black and minority ethnic (BME) groups, compared to 8% female and 6% BME working in industry.

In the survey 22% of respondents said they feel they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their race or ethnicity, while 67% of BME respondents said they are finding it difficult or very difficult to return to work, compared to 57% white British respondents.

Elizabeth Donnelly, CEO of the Women’s Engineering Society said: “Sadly, while the results of this survey are concerning, they are not surprising. We have seen that worryingly, STEM professionals from under-represented ethnicities find it more difficult to return to work and additionally, women are six times more likely to state that a lack of flexibility in working hours to allow for childcare responsibilities is a barrier to return.

“Many of these professionals took a career break for reasons outside of their control, but now, due to changing circumstances, are ready to get back to work. They are a highly educated, highly experienced and highly diverse group of STEM professionals who should not be overlooked. STEM organisations, industry leaders and hiring managers need to take note and think more broadly about how they access this hidden talent pool, giving talented professionals a fair chance.”

Haley StoreyHaley Storey, from Hampshire, is now in an engineering role after being away from the industry for 17 years. Haley took part in one of STEM Returners programmes with BAE Systems based in Portsmouth. After completing a 12-week placement working on a Type 45 Destroyer, she has now joined the company permanently as a Project Engineer, helping to find engineering solutions during ship maintenance or upkeep periods.

“I left my role as a production manager in 2003 when I started my family,” Haley said. “I was self-employed after that but as my role wasn’t related to engineering, I couldn’t see a way to get back in when I wanted to restart my career.

“The STEM Returner scheme seemed to be directed at people just like me – someone who had previously been in a technical job but had been away for a period of time.

“My CV would probably not have made the first round of the recruitment process, but the scheme enabled me to work alongside an experienced engineer and I was able to learn from him and get to grips with the workings of a large organisation. 

“Career breaks should not put good people at the bottom of the list – we still have ability, knowledge and often transferable skills so it would be great for that to be recognised.”

Rebecca Pearce, BAE Systems Maritime Services, added: “Over the years we’ve recruited fantastic talent that we wouldn’t normally have had access to. We really want to celebrate the success and calibre of candidates we’ve recruited through the STEM Returner programme, and to recommend that more people use this method of recruitment.”

To read the full report, click here.


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