Encouraging skilled workers who have taken career breaks back into the workforce could help businesses struggling with skill shortages, says recruiting experts Hays.

Career breaks are becoming more common in the world of work, as workers are taking time out of their career to care for loved ones, study, raise a family or deal with long-term sickness. The length of a person’s career is expected to increase in the future alongside life expectancy, meaning professionals are also more likely to take career breaks.

To attract and harness the experience and skills of this potential pool of talented workers, some businesses are creating returnship programmes - a new tool in the hiring strategies of organisations. There are several large firms already adopting this approach, they include PayPal, Willmott Dixon, Target, Microsoft, Unilever, IBM, Vodafone and Dell.

Tom Osborne, Managing Director of Hays Malaysia, said “Some organisations are failing to operate at their full potential due to skills shortages. One effective way of combatting this is by bringing those people with vital skills back into the workforce, so some businesses are starting to ensure they have an effective returnship programme in place.”

At present returnship programmes are generally aimed at those professionals who have been out of work for upwards to two years. These programmes usually involve formal paid placements which may lead to permanent employment and what differentiates the placements company-to-company is the level of support that is available to ease the transition back into work – which can include buddying schemes, training or mentorships.

Many organisations are also using returnship programmes as an opportunity to address diversity, as many of the professionals who leave the workplace are women, in order to raise a family. With diversity high on the agenda for many businesses, this is an important strategy to ensure they have a workforce which is more representative of their customer base. To ensure the returnship programmes are attractive, many roles are offered as part-time or flexible, before later considering a full-time role.

Tom said; “The costs of a returnship programme are high, so businesses must be aware and realistic when starting the schemes. They should make sure that the return is seen as a worthwhile investment and that it is being implemented to maximum effect. Organisations need to start by identifying where there are skills shortages in their business, or which area would benefit from diversity.”

Returnship programmes are highly beneficial to the professionals they target too, as it provides them with the opportunity to relaunch their career and even upskill. Taking time away from work may mean that some professionals have missed out on some vital developments within their area of expertise and these programmes allow them to transition back into the workforce and ultimately make them more employable.

Tips for introducing returnship programmes:

  • Use quality data or evidence for building the business case for a returnship programme. For example, assess where potential skills gaps are and where returners would fit into the business model to plug these
  • State your aims and objectives from the outset
  • It’s better to start small and then expand the programme gradually rather than being too ambitious from day one. It also means you can remain flexible and more bespoke
  • Keep connected with the group to ensure they have all the support they need. Providing returnees with a point of contact who they can turn to for any issues can work well. Evaluate the programme through feedback to explore best practice
  • Garner senior-level sponsorship and buy-in from the wider business. For example, ensure that managers running projects and hiring managers are trained and fully briefed
  • If placements are run in different regions, ensure that knowledge and best practice are shared so that there is consistency of experience for returners


This topic was originally explored in Hays Journal 17.

Last updated on June 18th, 2019