Maternity leave has long been considered one of those high points of life but low points as far as a career is concerned. A recent survey by Hays on behalf of Building showed that 90% of the female respondents said that having children adversely affected their job prospects.
And we know that we lose a lot of women at this career juncture, with statistics from the Engineering Council showing that 57% of women drop off the engineering professional register at around the age of 45 compared to 17% of men.
And the reality is that we are losing a sector of the engineering community that we can ill afford to lose, just at the point when we have invested – according to some estimates – as much as £200,000 in their training and career development. And with the major skills shortages that we face in engineering in the coming years, as more and more of our trained engineers face retirement, we need to address this challenge now.
So how can we turn this around, and instead of seeing maternity and paternity breaks as a negative, see them instead as a bonus to the employer, and a chance to upskill our workforce.
The trick to doing this is to find ways of using these employees who are on maternity or paternity leave as a valuable resource that we can use to our advantage, to think of them as opportunities for our business, rather than a threat. This is how we can make them work.
Women (and men) who take family career breaks find themselves in the heart of a community that we as businesses need to find better ways of tapping in to. They are suddenly immersed in the world that we often struggle to access, and we can use this to our advantage: an employee on parental leave has access to other members of this wider community (our customers, maybe), they have access to schools (our future employees), and they have access to other experiences that contribute in a positive way to their future value as an employee. By empowering these employees to play a role in these communities we not only find benefits within our businesses, but we also provide a benefit to the employee too. Women (and sometimes men) who take extended career breaks to bring up children very quickly find themselves in a world that is a long way from their corporate former ‘self’, and can start to lose their sense of identity. They no longer see themselves as engineers (or whatever their disciple was), but as just parents, and when this happens the chances of them returning to the profession at the end of their career break diminishes. Companies who support their employees more closely throughout this phase will find that the employee is much more likely to continue to see themselves as a professional, and their new non-work contemporaries will also identify them as a professional too. This has a number of advantages. One advantage is that it slowly starts to break down barriers and preconceptions that engineering is only suitable for men. Secondly, it allows these women to be identified as potentially valuable school links who can be used to support technical activities within schools (and the School Gate Set programme also works to promote this positive benefit). Thirdly, these women act as great role models to the next generation of girls. And fourthly – and very importantly – this support can ensure that these employees retain their confidence over the period of their career break. And from a purely parochial perspective, these staff act as great ambassadors for your company out in the wider community, and are (hopefully) able to represent you in a positive way.
And in addition to the role that is being fulfilled in the wider community, you can equally be benefitting in other ways within the company from their absence. You can take this opportunity to upskill another member of your staff – even if only for a short period of time – which is an ideal way of developing your employees and letting them see different sides of the business. You can be supporting the employee on the career break to actually progress their career, rather than this being a time when their career goes backwards, through helping them make an application for professional registration, for example. This way the employee will be ready to step straight back into a more demanding role when they are ready to return, rather than stepping back into a lesser role. And don’t let the benefits of having part time employees escape you. These employees can be transformational to a business, in terms of the efficiency, productivity and loyalty they bring to the workplace. Smart employees have long since recognised the value of part time staff.
And finally, an employee who has experienced a parental break often comes back to the workplace with a refreshed vision, better experience, more commitment, and often more perspective than they had previously, so the point is that you need to use these skills to work for the business, rather than seeing them as something that is working against the business needs. And they will bring back with them certain needs and requirements – which, if you satisfy, will ensure that you have an inclusive workplace - that will strengthen your business in the long term. Because people will always have children. And if you want to accommodate parents in your workplace, then you will have to find a way of ensuring that maternity/paternity leave works for you, rather than against you.