More work required to help STEM professionals return following career breaks

Natalie Desty, founder and director of STEM Returners

A programme to help STEM professionals in Scotland return to work following a career break has been described as ‘invaluable’.

STEM Returners facilitates paid programmes with employers including SSE, Jacobs UK and Leonardo.

STEM Returners has published its annual survey, the STEM Returners INDEX, which 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.

The results suggest that recruitment bias against race, age and gender continues to prevent those from returning to employment.

Published in National Inclusion Week, the survey revealed that women trying to return to the engineering industry after a career break are more likely to experience recruitment bias than men. Nearly a quarter (24%) of women respondents said they felt they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their gender compared to just 9% of men.

Professionals from minority ethnic backgrounds represented 39% of candidates attempting to return to work in 2023. They were twice as likely as all other ethnic groups (34% vs average of 17%) to feel they have experienced bias in a recruitment process related to race or ethnicity.

Both men (29%) and women (25%) said they felt they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their age. As a result, 30% of returners say their personal confidence has been affected by the recruitment challenges they face, and their low confidence remains a barrier.

However, the latest results do show some positive progress. In 2022, 29% of women said they felt bias due to their gender (5% more than this year) and overall, 38% of returners felt they had experienced bias in a recruitment process, compared to 33% this year. In 2022, 65% of participants said they found the process of getting back to work difficult or very difficult, but this year it was just over half (51%) of participants.

Natalie Desty, founder and director of STEM Returners, said, “For the first year since we launched the STEM Returners Index, we have seen that candidates are finding it slightly easier to return to work than they were this time last year. This is positive news but there are still too many people finding it an uphill battle.

“There are skills gaps across the engineering, tech and green jobs sectors – these gaps are growing, and the UK needs a diverse, agile and innovative STEM workforce more than ever. This talented and committed group of professionals are ready to help fill those roles. But they are still facing recruitment bias against their race, age, gender, and a perceived lack of experience.

“Industry leaders need to do more to update recruitment practices and challenge unconscious bias to give returners a fair chance to rejoin the industry they are passionate about.”