Return to work after a career break with the Amazon Web Services Returners Programme

24 February, 2020

Whether you’ve been out-of-work due to childcare, illness, personal circumstances or to pursue a passion project, it’s not unusual to worry that a perceived ‘gap’ in your CV might hold you back.

At AWS, we understand that a career ‘break’ may ultimately improve someone’s core skill set and make them a valuable asset to any team. We want to create a diverse working environment that is inclusive of people with a range of experiences – so they can bring their different perspectives and passion to the table. That’s why we run the AWS Returners Programme.

The programme is aimed at people who’ve been out of the workforce for two years or more, who want to relaunch their career. It includes access to a global working environment, internships or full-time careers, a support framework, great benefits and the flexibility to maintain work-life harmony.

To find out why encouraging return-to-work employees is one key aspect of our commitment to democratising access to careers in technology, we spoke to some Amazonians who have championed the programme, and benefited most.

Silene Bonato, Senior Programme Lead, AWS

Silene loved her experience of returning to work with AWS so much that she committed to helping develop and expand the AWS Returners Programme in the UK, turning her passion for tech and her desire to be an “agent for change” into meaningful action.

From 2018 onwards, she has championed the programme, partnering with our HR and Talent Acquisition teams to train the wider business on the value of returners, and going on to hire three of her own team members from the programme.

Before starting at AWS, Silene had been confronted by the fact that many companies struggle to create an environment where employees can return to work after an extended leave.

“I found that people judge you by the gap in your CV – not by your abilities to take the organisation forward. This problem is compounded when looking for opportunities as a woman in tech, because in some quarters that unconscious bias still exists.”

Silene Bonato

Silene knew this was wrong – not just because it excluded people like her from the workplace, but because motherhood and all the responsibility that comes with it had taught her invaluable lessons that could be transferred to her career.

"When I approached Amazon, their culture was refreshing in comparison to my other experiences. I was given an opportunity and was determined to prove myself. I always knew that the experience developed throughout my career and as a parent would be hugely valuable. I came back much stronger as a professional."

Silene Bonato

Silene’s determination goes beyond her own career – she also wants to create positive change for other people in her position.

“I asked myself – how can I help others avoid that pain? As a leader, you have the power to be a game-changer.”

Silene Bonato

Working in partnership with Amazon’s HR and Talent Acquisition teams, she had worked to formalise and expand the AWS Returners Programme in the UK within six months – and she has now set her sights on building the programme across Europe.

Silene also highlights the importance of building an ‘alternative talent pipeline’, at a time when the tech and innovation industries are experiencing a shortfall in the required technical expertise. She credits education programmes such as Amazon Future Engineer, AWS re/Start and AWS Get IT as part of the solution, but feels older generations are an undervalued source of technical expertise.

We want to reshape the workforce through support networks and mentoring, by offering flexibility, and by creating opportunities for technical retraining wherever possible.

Ramani Thangarasah-Halliwell, Customer Engagement Manager, AWS

Ramani came through the Returners Programme with Silene’s support

“I struggle to put what it means to me into words! It’s not just the flexibility, it’s the fact we are given confidence to grab the opportunity, to speak up with ideas and to become a leader.”

Ramani Thangarasah-Halliwell

Her career had been dedicated to cloud computing, technical and implementation roles before she decided to take a two-year professional break. The Returners Programme was her route back into working life, and she feels it’s important to understand that extended time off work is not always about raising a family.

"People take time off for lots of different reasons. It’s so important to leave the door open for talented people to re-enter the workplace.

After I joined, I realised that Silene’s passion and teamwork had played a key role in making this a reality for people like me. The programme can only get better. There are so many hidden gems awaiting to be discovered. I came back full of confidence and prepared to learn any skills that might need updating.”

Ramani Thangarasah-Halliwell

Looking ahead, Ramani feels that work-life balance will continue to evolve as technology and lifestyles change, allowing more flexibility and remote working.

Flexibility brings the best out in people – it’s something we should pursue for all employees, not just returners.

Jennifer O’Dowd, Premium Support Operations Manager, AWS

Based in Dublin, Jennifer took part in an 8-week ‘returnship’ as part of the Returners Programme earlier this year and became a full-time employee at the beginning of August 2019. She had previously lived and worked in Washington D.C. for nearly 25 years, moving with her family to Dublin after her husband started a new job in the city.

“My career break was supposed to be one year maximum, but it extended to almost two. I wanted to be there for my kids as we transitioned from the US to Ireland. But I also wanted a bit of extra time with my family, to enjoy the city here and to figure out the next steps in my career. After two years, I was hungry to get back to work.

When I first started looking at vacancies, I had that familiar sense of uncertainty. It’s so easy to let others’ stories and opinions cloud your judgement, but I was convinced that it was the right thing to do.

I’m now three months in to a full-time position, working closely with customers to help their business succeed. We provide the tools, technology, people and programmes to help customers optimise their performance and to reduce costs.

Everything we do is about innovating at speed. There’s a bottomless well of learning – new ideas and new people every day.”

Jennifer O’Dowd

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