Kim_AllenWomen make up just 12.8 per cent of licensed engineers across Canada, even though 19 per cent of the engineering degrees in Canada are awarded to women. We need to do more to encourage women to enter and, as importantly, remain in the profession.

One area that is crucial to retaining skilled and valued talent is improving career transitions, especially when it comes to managing leaves of absence. A poorly managed transition, frequently experienced by women who traditionally take leave when they have children, is a contributing factor in attrition within the profession.

To this end, in early 2016 Engineers Canada and Geoscientists Canada jointly published Managing Transitions: Before, During and After Leave, a planning resource guide for employers and employees to better plan for and manage maternity and parental leaves in the engineering and geoscience professions.

The benefits of actively managing transitions

Experience has shown that without forethought, re-joining an organization or re-entering the workforce after a leave of absence can be frustrating, especially when expectations are not managed. The simple solution is to proactively manage the transition beyond the minimum requirements of the law, something that many employers are not yet doing.

Knowing what to expect and building a positive, welcoming business culture will entice valued and talented employees to return, whether they be male or female. This benefits both the employee and the employer; leaves of absence will not disrupt career progression, productivity, project deadlines or employee development. Well-managed transitions reduce factors that contribute to under-representation and a lack of diversity in the workplace, and business continuity remains.

There are many opportunities for an employer to build a symbiotic relationship with an employee when it comes to leaves of absence. For example, has the leave been communicated to the wider organization as the employee prefers? Once on leave, is the employee kept in the loop on significant departmental meetings, trainings and social gatherings? Does the employee feel welcome (not pressured) to attend? These considerations can go a long way in helping the employee feel he or she is valued, still a member of the team, and most importantly, remain successful professionally while going through a major personal change. These opportunities exist throughout all stages of the transition process, starting with planning for leave, during the leave period, when the employee is getting ready to return to work, and in the first six months after return.

Promising practices that encourage retention of professionals

There are also a number of promising practices that foster a culture of retention. For instance, a designated period of flexible hours for an employee’s return is recommended. This may include work-from-home, reduced hours and other arrangements that allow for a friendly and successful re-entry. Flexibility can act as an adjustment period to help the returnee manage unforeseen challenges such as increased family responsibilities.

I encourage companies to be forward- thinking and pro-active in their leave policies. While some companies will institute baseline policies that require minimal involvement in supporting employees’ transitions and which only just meet legal requirements, those companies that go above and beyond these minimal standards are those that will see the greatest return on their investment in the form of enhanced employee retention and a better workplace culture. Re-integrating experienced employees is less expensive than recruiting, onboarding and training new employees. The average cost of replacing employees is about 40 per cent of the annual salary for entry-level employees, 150 per cent for mid-level employees and up to 400 per cent for specialized, high-level employees.

But policies alone will not make a colleague’s transition a success. It is people that bring policies to life. And it is not sufficient for only the employee going on leave, their supervisor and the human resources professional to be aware of these principles. Having all staff – from top executives through to junior employees – aware of the principles like those in Managing Transitions helps ensure that all in an organization are supportive of the staff member going on leave.

For the complete Managing Transitions guide and other resources, visit the Engineers Canada website.

Kim Allen, MBA, FCAE, FEC, P.Eng., is CEO of Engineers Canada and this article was written with contributions from Engineers Canada staff members Jeanette M. Southwood, M.A.Sc., FCAE, FEC, P.Eng., and Julia Chehaiber, MEBT. Engineers Canada would like to thank APEGA’s Women in APEGA group, who created the foundational document upon which Managing Transitions is based.

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