Shirley Browning, an HR graduate with varied experience in HR and finance roles, signed up as Steps Ahead mentee.

She had been unemployed for 11 months, and at different times over the past 13 years, due to caring and childcare responsibilities.

Shirley was matched with Steps Ahead mentor Liz Knight.

'I have been to some employers that, as soon as they hear you have children, it all changes. I had one who said, ‘I shouldn't say this really, but I need somebody who's more flexible’. And then you feel like you've been ghosted'

Time has not been Shirley Browning’s friend when it comes to her career. Graduating in HR in 2007, she went straight from Sheffield Hallam University into a global financial crisis and a series of temporary roles. Fast forward 13 years and she was again looking for a job in the midst of a crisis, this time the coronavirus pandemic.

In the intervening years, Shirley has had two children and experienced a family bereavement. With caring responsibilities, and lacking family members close by to help with childcare, flexibility has been top of her list of job requirements. While employers love to pay lip service to flexibility, it appears the flexibility they talk about is often not based around employee needs.

'One barrier I've come across is where a role is a full time flexible position but, even though they encourage you to work from home, it’s only on the rare occasion you can actually work from home,' says Shirley.

'I’ve been offered interviews where I have asked if they can reschedule as I have to arrange childcare and they have said, ‘no – we need to see you this day’. And I have been to some employers that, as soon as they hear you have children, it all changes. I had one who said, ‘I shouldn't say this really, but I need somebody who's more flexible’. And then you feel like you've been ghosted.'

A lengthy CV made up of a string of temporary jobs in sectors ranging from HR and finance to a stint in social services, coupled with her career breaks for caring, was not helping. Shirley was applying for three to four roles a month and was getting interviews but, as the saying goes, she was always the bridesmaid and never the bride.

'I kept finding out I had come second, but the recruiters could never tell me why. Maybe it was because I was applying for full-time roles as I couldn’t find a part-time one, and though companies cannot discriminate, it feels like they do. While it was nice to know I had made number two, it didn't feel great in terms of confidence. I got to the point where I was hiding the fact I had children, and that’s not a good thing.'

Clarity out of confusion

Things got harder after the birth of her second son. While, in the past, Shirley has always found a role fairly easily, even if she has had to settle for temporary rather than a full-time position in HR, when she was ready to return to work this time she found that recruitment agencies were saturated with people looking for jobs.

'I was looking for 11 months before I contacted Steps Ahead. It felt like a long time because, if I've been out of work before, it's only been for a few months. I even got to the point where I gave up looking for a job.'

It was then that Shirley came across the Steps Ahead mentoring programme on Facebook. What immediately jumped out was the fact it specifically focused on helping parents like her return to work and was run by the CIPD.

'I thought, I've got nothing to lose. I'll just apply for it,' she says.

Shirley was assigned to mentor Liz Knight. They got in touch via LinkedIn and then organised a telephone call. With Shirley in Hull with a one-year old and Liz in Bradford, they agreed a remote approach was best and scheduled a call every two weeks.

Number one on Shirley’s must-haves was help with her CV. It needed more clarity and impact. There was too much on it and she was unsure how to explain the gaps. She knew she was looking for either HR or finance positions because, in addition to her HR qualification, she had done AAT Level Two in accounting, but her CV was not helping her shine in either of these areas.

With her own background in HR, Liz was able to help Shirley focus on the most relevant experiences and create two separate CVs – one tailored to HR and one to finance. Practical input included extracting the right information to head up the CV and make maximum impact when it hit the recruiter’s desk. Also, helping Shirley to articulate skills she hadn’t thought to prioritise, like computer skills.

'At first I asked myself whether Liz was being too critical,' says Shirley. 'Then I thought, she has to be critical because this CV needs to look ideal. When you’ve got 500 people applying for one position, you need to make sure your CV is the best it can possibly be.' As well as helping to perfect her CVs, Liz worked with Shirley on interviewing skills, including conducting a mock interview. 'She helped me to understand what I shouldn’t say, as well as what I should. I do tend to waffle, and I like to fill the silence. It helped me to keep to the point,' laughs Shirley.

Thinking about the areas where her mentor has made the greatest impact, Shirley points to the expert suggestions she was able to offer, but also the assurances Liz gave her that she would find the right role.

'One of the best things about having a mentor is that they can tell you straight away if you are not doing something the best way and then help you to change that. You can instantly speak to an experienced, knowledgeable person in your field, and it doesn’t feel like you are being interviewed or put on the spot. You can just get straight to the point. Liz steered me in the right direction.'

Taking a step forward

The mentoring continued until just before the UK’s lockdown in March 2020. Around the same time Shirley began discussions about a role with Grounded Human Resources, which helps businesses in the York area with their HR. Having been introduced to the business by a friend, the initial role she applied for was not suitable, but owner Caroline Chapman then got back in touch about a different role.

Due to lockdown, the start date was deferred until September 2020, at which time Shirley began as a self-employed HR administrative specialist and started working on her first piece of project work. 'I’m happy to be self-employed as I have done that before and this role is great because it will help me gain more experience in HR and, hopefully, eventually get that first full-time role in HR,' she says.

Just do it

Now that Shirley has been through the trials of returning to work, does she have any advice to other parents looking to get back on the career ladder?

'I would encourage anyone to just keep going. Don't give up. Always be open from the start. When you go to an interview ask the employer about childcare. For example, ask if they are ok if you have to leave early but can make up the time. It’s the little things like that because they are not communicated to you.

'Not every job can be done remotely but sometimes it’s just about seats in the office. I had one experience where I did some temporary work and they said that even if you get to the office early, you can't leave early. My mentor told me to ask whether that is an employer I want to work for. If they can’t be flexible, or renegotiate an interview date, then they are not the company for you.'

And, Shirley adds, sign up for Steps Ahead. As she says, when you've been out of work for a while, it's hard to get your mind back into working mode, especially if it’s been some time since your last job. It’s not always easy to explain you have just had your maternity leave and are now ready for work.

'You want to prove that you have worked, that you have been taken seriously. But unfortunately it always comes back to when they ask why did you leave your last position? This programme not only helps you to present yourself the best way, but it also raises the profile of returners and encourages more employers to come on board. Remember, some of the best employees are mothers!'

Being part of Steps Ahead has helped change Shirley’s life. 'I would definitely recommend it to other people, especially if you've been stuck in a rut. It helps gain confidence and exceeded my expectations. I thought I would never find a job, let alone a flexible job. I want to thank my mentor Liz so much for the help. It has been a really amazing experience.'

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