Business

Returners may be the answer for talent shortages

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

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“Help wanted...apply within!” is a common advertisement seen in print and online media, but often you see qualified people who have been turned down for finance and accounting positions because they are considered too old or they have gaps in their résumés because they took a break from work.

Based on the Ministry of Labour and Social Security 2017 National Labour Market Survey, Jamaican entities faced great difficulties during 2014 to 2016 finding suitable talent for their workforce, mainly because applicants lacked work experience and were underqualified. Although this survey was done two years ago, the problem still exists in 2018.

Jamaica is not unique to talent shortages. Across the world talent shortages are forcing companies to look for new ways to source the skills they need. One historically under-appreciated source is returners — people who have taken extended career breaks and now want to return to the workforce. Often they are women going back to work after starting or raising a family, although they may also be those with caring responsibilities for older people (some, 'the sandwich generation', have cared for parents as well as children).

Getting back into the workplace can be daunting. These highly skilled, experienced professionals know they have lost touch with up-to-date technical knowledge, skills and are stigmatised as being too old. But even more crucially, after, say, five years out of the loop, they have lost confidence — and this is crucial for getting back into the workforce

With the largest proportion of female members worldwide of any accountancy body (and their numbers are growing), ACCA is particularly interested in managing the potential of this largely untapped resource.

Return-to-work programmes are designed to rebuild confidence and networks quickly. Returner programmes provide an intervention as they help people over the initial doubts to get back to the level they once were before their career break.

Many returners think they can't return to management level, so they go for an assistant job. They get it, then after a short while think, “I could do the senior role”. A returner programme helps people to go back to the level they left. Goldman Sachs coined (and trademarked) the term 'returnships' in 2008 in the US, when it devised a formal programme offering a paid work placement, like internships for graduates. Many organisations have since copied this, with financial services and professional services particularly embracing the idea.

There is a popular saying used by Jamaicans: “New broom sweep clean, but old broom know the corner', which simply means that experience is a valuable thing. Jamaican companies need to look at the value an experienced accountant has to bring to the table.

Adopting a 'returnship' programme would be beneficial to Jamaican entities. The programme should not only include professionals who have taken a break in their career, but also people who are approaching retirement age (and can't afford to retire) and would like to re-enter the working world or change jobs.

I have seen countless number of individuals who have a wealth of experience, but have been turned down for accounting positions because they are considered too 'old' and will not fit in the dynamics (younger staff complement) of a fast-paced work environment.

Returners don't want to be treated any differently from anyone else in the organisation. Nevertheless, recognise they have a gap in skills — whether that is technology skills, regulatory or legislation that has happened in the time they have been out of work.

For returner programmes to work, it is imperative that companies build an element of flexibility not only into the programme itself, but more importantly, into the job or role that the returner will have at the end of the programme.

Virgin Money's ReCareer programme is typical of many. The company describes it as 'a programme that will support, develop and inspire people who have taken a break from working for whatever reason; give them practical help and an opportunity to get into the career they want'. It is a 13-week professional internship during which participants take on a significant piece of work while receiving tailored returner coaching, mentoring and induction. Technical training ensures that they are up to date with industry or professional changes. There are opportunities to network internally with senior members of the organisation and a buddying system to ensure the returner enjoys the programme.

Organisations must work to overcome unconscious bias, assumptions and perception barriers. There's sometimes a stigma that someone who has taken time out of work is not as committed to the business or as reliable, and this needs to be changed.

However, even with well-resourced returner programmes, not every story will have a happy ending. Essentially both parties are eyeing each other to see if there is a fit. But it is at least a great opportunity for the company to see if it could work out and for the returner to try the workplace again.

ACCA would like to be at the forefront of driving returner programmes. Helen Brand, chief executive of ACCA, says:“It is a waste of skills when people permanently leave the workforce. Our own members have gone through a challenging education and training process. They've gained great experience and having that permanently lost isn't productive. Our lives don't travel in straight lines, and the flexibility offered by returnships is important to individuals, families and communities. Returner programmes are part of the pattern of the way the workplace is moving.”

Today's organisation must work to ensure that career breaks for family commitments don't have to end up being permanent departures from a business or even the profession itself.

Jamaican employers need to follow suit and manage the potential of this largely untapped resource. They should incorporate the returners programme in their entities succession-planning strategy.

There is a lot to be learnt from returners and their wealth of knowledge should be used to train, mentor and guide...up and coming young professionals in the organisation.

 

Audrey Malcolm is a partner and an accounting and internal consultant at GenCom Accounting & Business Solutions.

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