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

Bias in the recruitment process prevents science, technology, engineering and mathematics (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.

Nearly a third (29%) of women said they feel they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their gender compared to 7% of men, and despite 39% of females wanting to return to work due to children now being of school age (vs 8% of males), 40% of females still feel childcare responsibilities are a barrier to returning due to lack of flexibility offered by employers.

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

The Index also asked returners about the impact of Covid on their experience. More than (34%) 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% 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 (20% in 2022 vs 17% in 2021) according to the results.

STEM Returners, based in Hampshire, UK, 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.

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% 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%) 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.”

The survey revealed that the pool of STEM professionals attempting to return to industry is significantly more diverse than the average STEM organisation.

Those attempting to return to work are 46% female and 44% from ethnic minority groups, compared to 14% female and 9% from ethnic minority groups working in industry.

One person who has benefited from a STEM Returners programme is Falan Rose-Jones. After giving herself an intentional career break to travel the world, Falan wanted to re-enter the engineering industry but found it an uphill challenge.

STEM Returners supported Falan throughout the whole process, from completing the applications and providing guidance and support throughout the interview to navigating the security clearance processes.

Happily, she completed the STEM Returners scheme with BAE Air in Warton and was made a permanent member of the team.

Falan said: “As a young female, I have previously experienced some difficulty in trying to join the engineering industry. I have found that a small number of companies may focus more on hiring someone such as myself to simply increase the diversity statistics of the company and are lacking consideration of my actual skillset and experience. It wasn’t until STEM Returners introduced me to the vacancy at BAE Systems in 2019 and encouraged me to apply that I was able to progress in the industry.

“I’ve been part of the (EW) – Air Service team for almost two years now. I have always had a passion for aviation, space science and physics and this role is perfect for me. The role is challenging and diverse with a wide range of opportunities and I am very grateful for the team at STEM Returners for encouraging me to apply. It’s a brilliant initiative which allows people such as myself to return to a career after a break – whether it be long or short.”Age, gender, and perceived lack of recent experience are preventing STEM professionals from returning to industry after a career break; Impact of COVID has increased the number of returners and is making it harder for them to return; Men are finding it more difficult to return in 2022 than they did this time last year but women more likely to personally experience bias in recruitment processes due to their gender; The STEM Returners Index surveyed a nationally representative group of more than 1,000 STEM professionals on a career break who are attempting to return to work or who have recently returned to work

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