Women returners course teacher Sue Collett

If anyone knows about the struggles mums face returning to work it’s Sue Collett. Sue runs a five week course at North Hertfordshire College to help people refresh their skills, and give them the confidence to restart their career. She explains why her work is so important.

What’s your background?

I have always been people-focused since I was very young and I have a natural need to help everyone. This has kept me in a customer service and sales environment for over 30 years.

However over the last five years I have become more interested in helping people to develop their skills and reach their goals, and I have acquired qualifications in teaching and coaching so that I can be more effective in doing this.

Why do you feel so passionately about helping women realise their career ambitions?

Obviously being a woman myself I am more than aware of the trials and tribulations that women face both in the work place and the home. And while I know society has evolved tremendously in recent years, and it is more acceptable and frequent to see woman working full time and running the family home at the same time, I still feel that it is still seen as the woman’s job to make it all happen.

Hence the introduction of the so named ‘Superwoman’. This superwoman status is for some almost impossible to achieve and in the cases of these women, society still labels them as a ‘bad mother’ or not that good around the home as though if she wants to or has to work she is failing by doing so. This causes women to be scared to come out into the workplace or gain the career they have always wanted and if it a necessity that they work financially it is even worse for them.

I want to be a rock for these women to show them that they don’t have to be superwoman, and that if they need help to do both and reach their goals in life they are far from failing.

What courses do you run now, for who, and how do they help?

As part of our community project at the In Town Training shop we offer a five week course for anyone who is returning to the work place after a career break. This break could be for various reasons and we accept anyone onto the course but predominantly the learners are woman coming back to work once they have raised their children.

During the sessions the group work on confidence-building, suitable career paths, goals and ambitions, CV and interview hints and tips and general job searching activities. However the main aim of the course is to help the learner see that they are extremely employable and capable people in their own right.

The course is offered free because many women who join it are coming off of benefits – plus we also get many enquiries from women who are married or in partnerships and would love to have the independence of working and earning their own money. The fact that they can take the course without it costing anything gives them the confidence to attend.

Surprisingly it is more often than not these ladies that have the lowest confidence of all. Once they have attended this we then offer short refresher and up-skilling courses in subjects such as customer service and business administration – skills that can look good on a CV. We also offer starting your own business qualifications too, where the learners get to practice within our business incubation hub.

What are some of your favourite success stories?

Every group is different and they bond in completely different ways depending on the dynamics of the group, and it’s always a great adventure to grow with them over the five weeks and see all the things the individuals achieve. However, one story, for me, really shows how much positive impact our course can have.

One day young mother joined the course. She was six foot tall, dressed in ripped jeans and a Parker, and had several tattoos and piercings, and a cropped haircut. She looked striking but also very intimidating, and at the back of the class and scowled.

Once we started our normal ice-breaking session though, she spoke up. She had a really polite sweet voice and was very eloquent – and the whole class was mesmerised by her.

She explained that she was a qualified hairdressing and body artist and she had won awards for her work in the past, but had taken a couple of years out to spend with her daughter and now wanted to return to work. However, she was hitting brick walls, and one of the most poignant things she said on this first introduction was that she didn’t believe she’d gain anything from the class because we couldn’t change society’s opinion.

It turned out that this lady had received knock backs from more than 40 local hairdressers, and no longer had any confidence in herself – and willing to give it all up and go and work in another industry.

When we started to do job searching one morning, I noticed that the whole class were searching for openings for her in hairdressing. And eventually they came across an opening in a salon a couple of towns away. She immediately applied with our help and got a call back within minutes.

The lady went for an interview the next day, and it turned out that the salon had been looking for someone with her particular set of skills for months, as they had a particular group of clientele that needed a bespoke service and they wanted to be able to offer it to them.

They asked her to run this part of their business and offer a unique bespoke consultation service within their salon. She took their skills test and passed with flying colours, and the salon even introduced her own price list on the back of the test results.

This is just one lady’s story, but it’s a powerful example of the opportunities that can be out there waiting to be found and grabbed – even if you’ve not been successful to date.

What do you think are the biggest hurdles women face when resuming their careers after having children?

I think there are two worries for women returning to work – finances (earning enough money to sustain their living costs) and gaining the confidence to know they are employable.

But I think their biggest hurdle is overcoming the guilt – too often I hear women returners say, “I can’t work because I don’t want my children to think I am not there when they need me”.

What more can the government do to help working mums?

The government need to introduce better childcare facilities at an affordable cost, and they have to improve wages for part-time employees who don’t want to use childcare, so that women have an option to work around school hours but still earn enough to sustain a living.

They also need to introduce a support network for woman coming back into the workplace after being on benefits, to cover the transition period and ensure that women aren’t left in debt or poverty. This could include budgeting advice and managing money courses.

And employers?

Employers need to be more open to women returners and the benefits and soft skills they bring. Women haven’t been doing nothing and are therefore unemployable, they have just been unemployed. Many women have been raising the next generation of employees, and more often than not single-handed.

Employers need to offer a system of support that allows women to grow in confidence and skills as new employees, but also have systems in place in case emergencies happen and they need to be elsewhere. Options could include working from home, staggered hours and job sharing.

What advice can you give women trying to get back into the workplace or start a business?

My best advice would be to keep trying even if you have a setback, keep your options open explore all avenues to find a solution but most of all believe in yourself if you really want to achieve something then you will get there.

You can find out more about Sue’s Returners course and other courses available on the North Hertfordshire College website