Breaking back: Why Aecom is using Stem Returners

Aecom has partnered with Stem Returners in an initiative to encourage people back to work

The process of returning to work after a career break is difficult, according to 66% of Stem professionals, with many feeling they experience bias because of a lack of recent experience.

Stem Returners was set up to facilitate paid, short-term placements for those trying to get back into employment. Director Natalie Desty discusses a recently announced partnership with Aecom.

What are the major challenges individuals experience when returning to work?

Every year, we do research for the Stem Returners Index, for which 1,000 returners answer a survey to help us understand what the barriers are. We’ve found that the key barriers are quite fluid in terms of what returners are experiencing each year. Pre-pandemic, gender was the biggest barrier, and a lot of that was related to flexibility. The year after that, we found that ethnicity had become the biggest barrier and, last year, we found it was age.

There’s a perception that a career break leads to a deterioration of skills. Essentially, when a returner CV is compared with a non-returner CV, the returner CVs get filtered out at the early stages. We often talk about hiring-manager bias, but these CVs never hit the managers’ desks in the first place.

Many of our returners have applied for dozens of positions, and never receive feedback. This impacts confidence, which becomes a barrier on its own. Often, returners stop trying after too many unsuccessful attempts.

How does Stem Returners help support individuals back into a role?

We run programmes in collaboration with organisations, addressing diverse challenges faced by individuals seeking to return to work. This needs to work outside standard recruitment, because standard practices often create the barriers that make it difficult to return. From divergent graduates to senior directors on mental health breaks, we assist a broad range of candidates.

To remove barriers hindering their return, we partner with organisations to create ring-fenced roles outside of standard recruitment processes. Through local campaigns, we attract returners with niche skill sets and offer 12-week or 6-month paid internships, depending on the organisation. Returners receive mentorship and coaching to boost their confidence.

How is your partnership with Aecom aiming to help people back to work?

Aecom recognised the need to increase diversity within its teams. It understood that if it didn’t change it’s standard recruitment channels, the lack of diversity in the candidate pool would yield the same results – so it partnered with us to tackle this.

Its returners programme is looking to attract mid- to senior-level professionals who have taken a career break. The aim is to create more inclusive job adverts that consider the skills, attitudes and attributes of returning professionals, rather than focusing on experience and specific technical skills. Coaching and support are provided to the hiring and talent acquisition teams, to ensure they understand the programme’s goals and approach.

The focus is on supporting the returning professionals and assisting the hiring teams. Aecom aims to find four industry returners who will not only reintegrate into their careers, but also be promoted and grow within the organisation. The long-term vision is for the programme to become a regular initiative, alongside the firm’s internship and early careers programmes.

Candidates outside of standard recruitment channels often feel discouraged from applying through traditional methods and need the encouragement and support provided by the programme. Additionally, the programme aligns with the competitive candidate market, allowing Aecom to attract valuable candidates who may have been overlooked.

What are the benefits to companies?

We have returned 386 engineers now, and  an impressive 96% of these have secured permanent positions. This demonstrates that returners have lots to offer. They are suitably qualified engineers, and they have the prior skills and experience. The only barrier they have is a career gap, which they have proven is easily overcome in a very short period of time. For companies struggling to recruit, it’s a no-brainer.