Removing the return to work barriers for STEM professionals

What needs to change when it comes to bringing back into the STEM sector? We asked expert Natalie Desty from STEM Returners.

return to work stem


Natalie Desty is the Founder and Director of STEM Returners, an award-winning solution to an industry wide problem. After building a progressive career in recruitment, where she was Director of Maritime Engineering at a large recruitment company, Natalie was struck by the apparent lack of progress in diversity and inclusion within STEM industries. She was particularly concerned by the insurmountable barriers that people who have had a career break face, when wanting to return to STEM roles. We asked to talk about the latest STEM Returners Index survey.

“There is a critical need for skilled professionals in the UK tech and engineering sectors. Projections suggest a net growth in engineering roles of 2.8% compared to 2.3% in all occupations, which will result in 173,000 new engineering and technology jobs by 2030.

With the country’s drive to increase the use of renewable energy, there are concerns that a green energy skills gap of around 200,000 workers is emerging that must be addressed if the UK is to deliver on long term energy security and meet its energy transition targets.

Estimates from Microsoft suggest there will be 149 million new jobs in software, data, AI, machine learning and cyber by 2025 around the world, and a recent report from Tech Talent Charter and Code first Girls stated that half of women in tech drop out by the age of 35.

The numbers are clear, and there is a group of talented, experienced, and knowledgeable people who are ready and willing to fill those skills gaps but are overlooked because of a gap on their CV.

Unconscious bias

In our annual STEM Returners Index, which surveys more than 1000 people who are on a career break or just returned, recruitment bias is the main barrier to entry, with a third of participants saying they had experienced bias in the recruitment process.

Women and professionals from minority ethnic backgrounds bear the brunt of this bias. Nearly a quarter (24%) of women said they felt they have personally experienced bias in recruitment processes due to their gender compared to nine percent of men, while professionals from minority ethnic backgrounds, which represented a large proportion (39%) of candidates attempting to return to work in 2023, said 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.

STEM organisations are clearly missing a major opportunity to get highly skilled people back into the industry.

Despite 86% of respondents having career breaks lasting less than five years, 38% of candidates felt they have received bias related to lack of recent experience, signalling there is a perception that a break leads to a deterioration of skills. But through our work, we have found that this just isn’t the case. 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 actually benefit their employers.

Change is happening but slowly

Fortunately, progress is happening, but it is slow. In the 2022 Index, 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.

When asked if they would have preferred to return to work through a supported returners programme, 40% of returners said yes. Despite the clear need for structured return to work programmes, only 21% had seen one, and only 16% had returned to work via this route – underlining the need for more STEM employers to think seriously about diversifying their approach to recruitment.

We are working with more of engineering and tech’s biggest firms to implement programmes that act as a returnship, so candidates can be reintegrated in an inclusive environment with additional mentoring and support. We’ve also been working with the Government’s Equality Hub, delivering free of charge return to work career coaching, job skills training and sector specific upskilling and mentoring designed to support parents and carers in the midlands and the north of England.

But more needs to be done to change a culture that still views career breaks negatively instead of a completely normal part of many people’s working life. We need more STEM organisations, industry leaders and hiring managers to take note and think more broadly about how they access this hidden talent pool, giving talented professionals a fair chance and helping plug the skills and jobs gaps that are

Collectively we should not stop until we’ve created a level playing field for returners, put an end to unconscious bias in recruitment processes, and removed the hidden barriers returners face today.

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