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David Barwell: Returners programmes are vital for addressing gender imbalance and skills shortage

Most companies are familiar with internships and work placements to help attract graduate trainees, but it is crucial that industry also supports women and men back into the workplace following career breaks. Ahead of International Women in Engineering Day on 23 June, we are promoting that career returner programmes are crucial for tackling the industry’s gender imbalance and skills shortage.

david barwell aecom returners

david barwell aecom returners

David Barwell is chief executive for Aecom in the UK and Ireland

Aecom’s own programme, which welcomed its first group of employees in April, is designed to tap into a new group of potential employees – a group who brings diversity of perspective, a fresh pair of eyes and, in many cases, a wealth of experience.

The programme is aimed at those with mid to senior level experience who have been out of the workplace for a significant period of time and wish to return to work. This break may have been to raise a family, care for a family member or even travel the world.

It offers a paid placement coupled with a structured programme of support including training, coaching and mentoring to help participants reacclimatise in to the corporate landscape, build up their confidence and undertake any training/knowledge updates as required. The paid placements are six months long and, where possible, will lead to a permanent role within the organisation.

The placements aren’t just aimed at people with engineering backgrounds – they are about matching skills regardless of previous careers to jobs. In fact, employees on the programme have come from a whole range of backgrounds including law, IT and garden design, as well as one employee who had been a playwright in the past.

There are many reasons why we are urging others in the industry to develop similar programmes. For one, it enables firms to target an untapped group of highly qualified and experienced professionals and address the skills gap that exists particularly at more experienced levels of our industry. However, it is important to note that Aecom considers its programme open to all, including men who may have taken time out for similar reasons.

Unfortunately, for those that have taken a career break it is often the case that they struggle to get back into the workplace through both conscious and unconscious bias towards the gap in their CV. We look past that and are not only actively recruiting individuals who have had a career break, as we recognise that they bring diversity of perspective and a wealth of experience, but also ensuring that we provide a supportive programme alongside the work opportunity to help ease any required transition back into the workplace.

As an industry, we must apply our problem-solving skills to encourage female talent into the engineering profession. We strive for a workforce that represents diversity of thought and already have a number of strategies in place to facilitate the hiring and advancement of female talent. We are pleased with our progress but the job is far from complete. Industry must continue to work together to remove the barriers that can prevent women from reaching key positions and becoming future leaders and decision makers.

We are calling for a more inclusive approach that fosters positive action to establish a more level playing field that enables people to be measured on their merits, regardless of gender, race, sexuality and culture. As part of its broader diversity programme, the company has a number of strategies in place to facilitate the hiring of female talent, such as the inclusion of women at the key selection decision points during recruitment.

From how job advertisements are pitched and where they are promoted, to ensuring that women play a greater role in the hiring decision-making process, we believe that a more inclusive approach will help achieve a better outcome for all.

  • David Barwell is chief executive for Aecom in the UK and Ireland


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