Caroline Gill, a marketing professional from Leeds had taken two and a half years out from her career to look after her two children. It was after three months of actively searching for a new role to return to work when she discovered the CIPD mentoring scheme and signed up in December 2019. Caroline was matched with CIPD member and veteran Steps Ahead mentor Jonathan Broadhurst, who lived in nearby Wakefield, Yorkshire.

The hardest part is knowing what you want to do

Caroline had previously worked in senior marketing roles in financial services for fifteen years. After returning to work following maternity leave for her second child, the opportunity arose to take advantage of a voluntary redundancy programme. After some soul searching, Caroline decided she would take the redundancy and spend time with her young children, who were by then almost two and four years old.

'About eight months after I returned to work following my second maternity leave, my employer put forward a voluntary redundancy scheme to its staff. I spent a lot of time thinking about what to do; I’d progressed my career over a number of years and was proud of what I’d achieved, but I also missed my children. I decided that in years to come, when reflecting back on my life, I would never regret spending more time with my children whilst they were young and so took the offer of voluntary redundancy. I thoroughly enjoyed the time at home with my children and had the opportunity to do so many things with them. When my youngest started school in September 2019 it was time for me to look at returning to work. And that's the point where I realised I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do,' she says.

What Caroline did know, however, was that she wanted a rewarding role but with a better work life balance with the time still to spend with her children after school. She started searching online job boards for part-time jobs and realised the majority of these roles were mostly administrative. The whole experience, she says, was dispiriting.

'I realised didn’t have a plan; I just updated my CV and spent a lot of time staring at reams and reams of jobs on the online job sites. I guess I wanted to have my cake and eat it - I just wanted the sites to bring up that one job that would be interesting but really flexible. And they don't do that, they bring up hundreds of jobs, you just stare at them and think, I'm not sure what I want to do with all this. And then you spend far too much time scrolling through lists of jobs and getting more and more miserable about it. It just ends up in a never-ending circle that doesn't get anywhere.'

Taking the first positive steps

During the next couple of months Caroline sent out a variety of applications but didn’t hear back from any. Without feedback as to why she hadn’t been considered, she was left with questions. Was it because she was overqualified for the lower level roles she was applying for? Was it that she had a 30-month gap when she was looking after her children? Or, as she succinctly puts it, did recruiters assume she no longer had any 'brain cells'?

By this time the whole thing was becoming daunting. She just wasn’t getting anywhere. When a friend mentioned she’d seen the CIPD’s mentoring programme on networking site Mumbler, she checked it out. She signed up, describing it as a 'straightforward' process. Within a couple of days, she was talking to a CIPD representative about the scheme and was matched with Jonathan as her mentor.

Caroline and Jonathan agreed to begin the mentoring sessions in the New Year. After an initial phone conversation, they met face-to-face in a hotel café convenient to Caroline.

'I had not had a mentor before so didn’t have any huge expectation as to what exactly would happen. I just felt positive that I was actually doing something more productive and knowing that I would be working towards a more likely return to work. Making that first step, if nothing else, is a step in the right direction,' she explains.

At that meeting they started by sharing their backgrounds. Caroline found this useful, both in helping to build a relationship between them and in building her confidence, after dealing with mainly child-related issues for so long. Speaking with someone she didn’t know, and with whom she didn’t have any connections, reassured her she hadn’t lost the ability to converse with adults and professionals.

One of the hardest elements in the process of returning to work, she says, is analysing yourself to understand what you really want from a job, and the roles out there that can provide this. 'It's a bit like when you're at school where you fill in one of those career forms and it brings back weird jobs. You need to do that all over again but with something that's actually going to help you have a realistic picture, rather than telling you to go be a ballet dancer.'

'The mentoring programme was a kick starter for me to get out of a rut and to feel a lot more positive and motivated about what I was going to do next.'

Continuing support

Shortly after her session with Jonathan, Caroline was offered an interview for children’s cancer charity Candlelighters. After two interviews, one requiring a presentation and a further interview with ten members of the team, she was appointed as marketing manager. She started the role on 2 March 2020, just before the UK’s pandemic lockdown.

As the old saying goes, you wait ages for a bus and then two come along at once. Just days after accepting the job at Candlelighters, Caroline was contacted by another company about a potential role after meeting one of their managers at a Leeds careers fair.

'I gave him my CV which he passed to their director of shared services and I ended up going to meet him for an informal chat. Then they got in touch to say they thought they had a role that might be of interest so I had a potential second opportunity,' Caroline explains.

Had she not signed up for the CIPD’s parent returner mentoring programme, however, things may have been quite different. It was thanks to her session with mentor Jonathan that Caroline attended the careers fair in the first place.

'I probably wouldn't have gone down that route had I not spoken to Jonathan,' she says. 'We talked a lot about me starting to network more, getting back in touch with old colleagues and seeing if there were networking events I could go to. I'd lost the confidence even to go to professional colleagues and talk to them about roles. Jonathan gave me that kick up the bum to go out and meet people and that’s how I ended up at the fair.'

While her mentoring experience was short lived, Caroline believes it had a significant impact on her ability to get a job. From gaining the confidence to speak to different people and nail that interview, to being reminded of all the skills she has so that she could put together a professional PowerPoint presentation, mentoring helped her to be ready to face anything.

'It was definitely useful having had some professional conversations before I was thrown into the deep end, so I didn't sink. I clearly managed to swim because they gave me the job,' she laughs.

Two weeks into the job at Candlelighters, the UK went into lockdown and Caroline was furloughed. This was another anxious time, but the CIPD got in touch to offer support, which she appreciated. Caroline returned to work from furlough in September 2020 and just six months later, was successful in gaining the position of Head of Engagement. She says 'I’ve loved working again after my time off with the children, I’ve so quickly been able to adapt back to work life and using all of the skills I’d developed over the years prior to my career break. It really is like getting back on a bike! I’m thrilled that my career is progressing again already and am incredibly thankful to Jonathan for those first opportunities to rediscover my professional self.'

'What makes it extra difficult as a parent returner is to get past those blocks that you've got for yourself. However much experience you’ve had, it's easy to lose self-belief and self-confidence. You worry people won't believe you've got any ability. And then you eventually start to wonder if you've got any ability yourself.'

'Having a mentor helps to focus you on the task and to stop procrastinating. I was terrible at convincing myself I’d been actively looking for a job, whilst in reality I was just mindlessly staring at jobs on LinkedIn or Indeed for hours on end. You feel quite miserable and down because if you've not got that purpose and direction, you’re firing off applications that you're not fully committed to just because you feel like you should be applying for things.'

Caroline adds that 'with a mentor you feel you've got someone to help guide you through that process, encouraging you to do things for yourself that give you the confidence back. I would definitely recommend it.'

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