HomeCase StudiesRevving-up returns: How Schneider Electric’s returnship program is supporting the re-entry of women into the STEM workforce

Revving-up returns: How Schneider Electric's returnship program is supporting the re-entry of women into the STEM workforce

by HRD Connect | Case Studies

Schneider Electric is one of those businesses with an old-school pedigree – 180 years’ worth in fact. While it has an impressive heritage within the engineering technology and power sector across the globe, Schneider Electric prides itself on its mission to innovate at every touchpoint of the business. Its commitment to ensuring equity in pay is outlined in the company manifesto with one particularly pertinent statement announcing: “We recruit and promote for potential, rather than like-for-like experience.” It is this dictate that reflects the core principle of the Returnship program and prompted a resourceful solution to the increasing number of niche roles that needed filling across Schneider Electric US.

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Where did all the women go?

The STEM industry isn’t known for its diversity. Figures from 2019 show that while women make up almost half the employed US workforce, only a third (34%) were employed in STEM occupations. Add to that a few grueling years of global disruption and the fact that it is women in most cases taking career breaks to provide childcare, elder care or simply leaving employment to follow their military spouses. It’s clear to see how the trend has been enabled to continue.

“Industrial automation, electrical engineering, and software development are not traditionally female-heavy degrees,” explains Amy deCastro, Vice President of HR, Global Businesses in the US Territory. She herself is a proud member of the Schneider Electric Alumni – having started her career in HR within the company and specializing in HR business partnerships and Schneider’s Centres of Excellence, in particular, talent acquisition, talent management and executive leadership. “When I looked across the organization, we were losing females as fast as we could attract them. What’s more, we have often been up against hiring managers saying, ‘I didn’t hire a diverse candidate because I didn’t even get to meet one.’ The market is so overwhelmed, but we still have our ambition to maintain a diverse organization,” she adds.

Using lived experience to shape diversity

deCastro reflected on her own return to work journey to shape the Schneider offering having taken a career break between 2008 and 2011 to have her two children. “When I decided to come back I had door after door slammed in my face: ‘You don’t have the “recency of” experience we’re looking for; you have a big gap in your resume. Why did you leave for three years you’ve just missed all of this progression in the HR field.’ For me, it was an equal amount of time that I had been out of work that it took me to get back in. It was an additional three years before I finally re-joined an organization making 50% of what I earned when I left to have my family,” she remembers.

deCastro began exploring the idea of finding people in a similar situation; those lacking the courage to apply for positions or feeling unworthy because they didn’t have the full gamut of skills listed in the job description. She realized that many of them were already in her networks and began connecting via groups like the Society of Women Engineers and LinkedIn. “I found two organizations that focused on this exact type of program: iRelaunch and ReacHIRE, both of which help companies build returnship programs, just like this one, but for us, ReacHIRE was the right fit for our stage of readiness,” she says.


Revving-up the returnship

Like many HR initiatives with little provenance, buy-in from the management team is a must. So deCastro needed to find a business within Schneider willing to pilot the scheme. “It was change management to the fullest because I now needed to create this hiring manager change of mindset. They needed to see that a gap on a resume should not be seen as a negative. It should, in fact, be a conversation piece for the interview.”

Once she had managers agree to take on a returner, the team was able to begin recruiting new cohorts and commence training. deCastro is quick to emphasize that while it is mainly women who are affected by the issue of returning to work, men are also impacted: “That’s why it was so important for us to highlight that the only prerequisite that we put on our program is that you needed to be out of the workforce for a minimum of three years,” she says.

A defined onboarding plan sees cohorts undertake an intense first week focusing on digital skills and systems after which it becomes a typical day-to-day role. Each returner is appointed a mentor and program manager within ReacHIRE and attends cohort meetings and various trainings. It’s an open and ongoing collaboration between ReacHIRE and Schneider for the full six-month program.

The frequency of contact and level of support has been instrumental particularly if any hiccups occur, which happened with one of the cohorts in the pilot. “We had a situation where a returner was saying the role didn’t really feel like how it was defined. ReacHIRE contacted me and the program manager and we discovered that the hiring manager had moved on; someone new had come in and wasn’t briefed on what the returnship was so we just needed to fix it,” enthuses deCastro.

The data doesn’t lie

There is no doubt that the program has been successful. The pilot scheme saw five out of seven people hired. Schneider has more than doubled the cohort for this year and there are now 17 people on board since February. “The buzz is pleasing within the company. Everybody wants a ‘returner’. They are seeing that we’re bringing people into the organization for these returnships, and the managers are saying: “I hired this person to do X, but they can do X, Y and Z.” My only ask is that for six months they are allowed to do what they were hired to do. It’s about getting back into corporate life. Then after six months, we can decide as a company if the employee is sustainable long term and which role will fit them best.”

Although, deCastro points out that not all managers are raising their hand to be part of it. “Our best managers truly see the potential of this pool, but we still have a lot of work to do on the other percentage who didn’t offer. Yes, we doubled our cohort, but we have the opportunity to increase the number of open positions that could welcome a returner. So, there is still work to do, but we’re seeing progress.”

Getting the backing of Schneider’s very own North American CEO Annette Clayton and North American President Aamir Paul has given the initiative a stamp of approval: “They are real advocates of the returnship. Even the cohort that we kicked off the pilot with was with an executive vice president of one of our lines of business who said: “Sign me up. Let’s pilot it here.” I don’t want to say it’s been easy, but it’s been smooth,” smiles deCastro.


Building confidence is critical

Of course, it might sound like plain sailing, but deCastro notes that along with changing the mindset of the hiring managers, building the cohorts’ confidence has been the biggest hurdle. “We often talk about courage and confidence because it is such a big part of what we’re trying to do. We’ve gone from being women who were defined by our professional abilities, to not being recognized for that. We have to look at how we build these people back up and help them understand that just because they took three years off doesn’t mean that everything went away.” To this end, Schneider focuses on the job content, onboarding, roles and responsibilities, while ReacHIRE works on softer skills like wellbeing, mindfulness and confidence building.

“These individuals are part of a greater cohort. They are not alone, which is why the returnship has been so successful. It’s a program designed for a community. It’s not just one person that took a break that’s been welcomed into the organization as a non-traditional profile. It is truly a community with shared history and experience that can lean on each other.”

At the end of the program, regardless of whether the individual is hired by Schneider or not, the cohorts are reunited to celebrate the experience: “The evolution of these women, and the genuine appreciation and confidence and gratitude is a beautiful thing to see. You might think it’s just a job, but when you see those people that had been constantly turned away finally thriving, it’s hugely rewarding.”

Getting the culture right: on location and remote

Ensuring a culture fit has been imperative to the success of the program – from the point of view of both the managers and the cohort. “We remind them that they are testing this out. Returners need to make sure that Schneider is a place they can connect with culturally and managers need to look at whether the individual can be successful in their team. We tell them to think about dynamics, energy, and ambition coming from the person in the interview. They need to stop looking for something that’s not going to exist in the market right now,” says deCastro.

The fact that the program is primarily office-based has provided some challenges, but deCastro is committed to ensuring a like-for-like experience for remote returners too. “We did get feedback from ReacHIRE that if you want to attract a broader candidate base, putting ‘remote’ on job post is going to get you the best talent. So, we are stretching a little bit because we’re not a work-from-anywhere company. We have some remote resources as part of the Returnship and are working with managers to make sure that they provide the same type of experience that someone might get in an office.”

This has seen a focus on building up the mentorship part of the program and facilitating introductions into the communities within the organizations: “We have things like Employee Resource Networks, technical communities, functional experts, and our R&D Council which is focused on innovation for the US. We have a Veteran Allies organization, as some of the returners are military spouses. We also have the Black Professionals Employee Resource Network; theWomen in Schneider Electric (WISE) is another one. We embrace culture even with that remote setting,” says deCastro.

A returnship for the future

With the cost to the organization being nominal, this investment is driving Schneider Electric’s diversity ambition: “Studies show that just a 30% diverse employee base is more innovative than a team that is less than 30%. The value proposition has been so strong that we’ve gotten minimal pushback from the managers because there’s this talented, experienced resource that you get to test out for six months while they develop. And after that six months? You don’t have to hire them.”

Looking at 2024 and beyond, deCastro is confident that the Returnship will remain an integrated part of the Schneider Electric Talent Management strategy throughout the US territory and potentially around the global sites. “Different countries are now coming back to us and saying: ‘Hey, what is this Returnship? How can we become a part of that?’”

The original context for the entire Returnship program was personalization, reflects deCastro, and this has been unequivocally achieved: “I have pulled these resources, these mature and educated and experienced resources that are now being populated in these succession plans – the very ones that have been historically short on diverse profiles. We have these people being placed into key critical roles and are seeing people get that second chance.”

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