6 January 2020
by Idha Valeur

Q&A with Natalie Desty from STEM Returners

STEM Returners Founder and CEO, Natalie Desty, discusses setting up an organisation that helps candidates re-enter the workforce and reinvigorate their careers.

Natalie Desty
Natalie Desty © STEM Returners.
Some people find it almost impossible through standard channels to re-enter after a break.

Natalie Desty

STEM Returners

How did STEM Returners come about?

I started off in recruitment and spent 14 years with a large organisation where I was Director of Maritime Recruitment. I was frustrated by the number of candidates who had had a career break in a very skills-short market, but were still struggling to return through standard recruitment channels, resulting in them either not being able to return at all, or working below their capability. I knew there was a need, so I decided to risk it all, leave my job and created STEM Returners to fill the gap and ensure that no more talent was wasted.

What is a typical day at work like?

Most of my day is spent speaking to people and matching them to current opportunities. Many candidates have tried really hard and become disillusioned or have a lack of confidence. We work with them to increase their confidence and help them demonstrate their capability and value to employers. We work directly with employers to bridge a gap in which returners are filtered out through standard recruitment channels. When I am not speaking with candidates, I am contacting new companies to ask them to run a returners programme to create more return opportunities across different sectors.

What is STEM Returners?

STEM Returners provides a bridge between employers and returners. Some people find it almost impossible through standard channels to re-enter after a break. We work directly with employers to ensure that returners get seen by the hiring managers and that hiring managers do not miss out on a huge group of talented individuals. We work with employers to ensure opportunities are available to people who have had a career break, and with returners to increase their confidence and update their skills and experience after a break with an employer-led and fully paid returners programme. The idea is that every opportunity leads to a permanent position. So far 96% of all returners have been retained by the host company which is fantastic.

It is also important to say that STEM Returners is open to everyone. Sometimes people think it is for mums – although this is definitely part of our community, in actual fact a returner can be any one at all, be it a graduate who did not secure a role when they graduated, right through to a senior director who is looking to come back after an unplanned career break.

How does it work?

The programme is a 12-week internship in which returners are supported to upskill and refresh their experience. The internship is fully funded by the companies, all participants are paid an engineering salary during the internship and they will have the opportunity of a permanent role at the end of the programme. At the end, the salary and job is re-negotiated based on the prior skills and experience of the returner. This is really important to us – we do not want to just be providing work experience, as valuable as this is, but instead an opportunity to return permanently to the industry in a supported way. We also provide mentors through the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) which give the returner external support for a whole year.

The companies that run a programme will normally have limited places, usually 10, but they often run more than one a year, and there are many new companies in discussions about running programmes, so returner opportunities are starting to break in to mainstream recruitment prectices.

How did you start STEM Returners?

I knew there was a need for it. I had spoken to so many people who had tried so hard to return after a career break and found it completely impossible. In a skills-short market, this made no sense at all. I did some research, linked up with industry partners such as the WES and engineering institutes, and approached companies to ask them to support with placements. We were lucky to have some early adopters like BAE Systems, Babcock and BT, who have now run subsequent programmes. From here it has really grown as more people found out about what we were doing. We have just placed our 100th returner in the two years we have been going, which is a wonderful milestone.

What can people who sign up to the programme expect?

A structured and soft return to work where they will be fully supported and trained. All the returner programmes are supported by an external engineering mentor and, most importantly, all have the opportunity to return permanently – the programme is about returning lost skills for good.

Why are programmes like STEM Returners important?

They are vital to ensure that talent is not wasted. STEM industries simply cannot afford not to ensure they are attracting the widest talent pool possible. The programme seeks to return individuals permanently and makes business sense for the company running one for attracting and retaining diverse talent, giving the returner an opportunity to pick up their career where they left off. This is not just about returning, but returning at the right level so that a career break is no longer a barrier.

What is your favourite moment of working with STEM returnees

There are so many. Every returner has a story of finding it almost impossible before they were given this opportunity. People who have applied for hundreds of vacancies and not even received a response through standard channels, people who have been told that their skills are out of date and people who have been told they will not even be considered because they have had a career break. The reasons behind career breaks are so varied and include maternity, caring responsibilities, unplanned emergencies, health, redundancy and sometimes choice. It is so rewarding to get people back where they should be. Some of our returners had given up all hope of ever returning and it is so rewarding to be able to provide the bridge to return.

What advice would you give to someone re-entering the workforce and STEM?

Do it. Your skills are required and in demand and a career break is a natural part of many peoples’ working lives so it should not be a barrier. Be clear on your break and do not try and hide it in your CV – state your reasons for wanting to return and your passion for the industry. Where possible, seek out returners programmes where your career break will be viewed as a pre-requisite rather than a barrier.

What is your ultimate goal?

To return every bit of wasted STEM talent in the UK. We hope that in the future a career break will not be a barrier and instead viewed as a normal part of someone’s working life. We will keep going and returning as many people back as possible over the next two years.


Idha Valeur