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Returnships - Tapping into Talent After an Extended Workplace Absence

A returnship program offers a high-ROI hiring funnel, provided it is well-run and valuable

Jodie Sandell PHR and SHRM-CP
Consultant, project manager, writer, and process improver with over 15 years of HRM experience
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Employees offering guidance to a returnship participants who used to be a retiree.
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From PepsiCo sales to Home Depot technology to Tesla engineering, job ads for returnships are on the rise. Even Amazon, despite their recent layoffs, has a 16-week Returnship program.

So what are returnships, and should your company be offering a returnship program?

In This Article


What Are Returnships?

Internships allow industry newbies an opportunity to gain professional experience and learn on the job. Returnships work in much the same way. They offer work environment training and mentorship to people who have been away from the traditional workforce for a few years.

Both “ships” are a fixed period of work dedicated to offering professional learning experiences. And both can be paid or unpaid work.

A returnship program acknowledges that, while a person has some professional experience in their chosen field, it is probably outdated. Returning to the workforce after an extended absence means that they need help learning new processes, new tools, new skills, and industry standards that differ from when they were last employed.

Returnships, therefore, are essentially return-to-work programs where workers can restart their careers after a break in service. There are many reasons for career breaks: caregiving or raising a loved one, traveling, or the pandemic. According to Zippia, more than 47 million Americans left their jobs between March 2020 and the end of 2021.

The number of workers experiencing gaps in employment has been on the rise in recent years. According to Applied, almost half (47%) of U.K. Gen Zers have taken a career gap of six months or more. If that’s not convincing, take a look at LinkedIn. In 2022, the platform introduced a Career Breaks portion of its job history form to provide job seekers with a means to “capture life experiences.”

With gaps in employment history trending, returnships have followed suit. And it’s both employers and employees who benefit. The idea of returnship programs dates back to the early 2000s. Goldman Sachs launched the first program. Recent years and conditions have caused returnships to trend, and some companies are joining Goldman in recruiting returners while a few exclusively hone in on the concept. Career reentry firm iRelaunch currently has 100 returnship opportunities posted on their job board.

Two women in a conference room receive training as part of a company's returnship program.

Should Your Company Offer a Returnship Program?

At face value, offering a returnship program makes as much sense as offering an internship program. If you want to tap into a talent pool that requires some guidance but is focused on learning, it can work out well for both parties. Hut, while there are many benefits to a returnship program, it may not be the best solution for every organization.

Here are some points (both good and bad) to consider:

Benefits of Returnship Programs for Employers

  • Access to talent: Employers can overcome talent shortages by reintroducing individuals to the workforce and coaching/training them into a position they need to fill.
  • Affordable remuneration: Because returnships can be unpaid, or offer a remuneration lower than a full-time position, the company gets hands on deck by cost-effective means. Depending on your policy, returnees may also not partake in company benefits.
  • Improved DEI: Employers can bridge gender and equity gaps by supporting populations who have had to take career breaks. For example, McKinsey found that in 2020, women with children were significantly more likely than men with children to leave their jobs. In that pandemic-stricken year, one in four women considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their career, versus one in five men. From February 2020 to January 2022, 1.1 million women left the labor force.
  • Access to remote talent: Depending on the requirements of the job, returnships can be conducted virtually.
  • Employer brand marketing: Your organization’s reputation will benefit as job searchers will see your company as inclusive and innovative.
  • Improved employee experience: You will see a boost in your existing employees’ morale and employee engagement. According to Ernst & Young, “Returnships tell employees that their personal commitments are valued and that a hiatus from work need not be an off-ramp.” In addition, it shows the company is willing to be flexible and engage in talent sharing and cross-training their staff— another morale booster.
  • A means of recruitment: A returnship can serve as a trial run for competency, skill set, and culture fit. The employer can get to know a returnship participant before potentially hiring them in a full-time role.
  • A high-ROI hiring funnel: Since a person looking to relaunch their career often accepts positions with the companies who hosted their returnship, the return on investment is good. This is particularly true if the returnship is unpaid before it leads to full-time employment.

Key Challenges of Offering a Returnship Program

  • Damage to the employer brand: If the program is not planned and executed well, your organization’s reputation will suffer. You may be seen as taking advantage of the marginalized. You may be viewed as uncommitted to diversity and inclusion.
  • Ongoing input: Managing the program will be an ongoing project. Companies may suffer from a lack of resources, which would contribute to an unsuccessful program.
A mentor explains a business innovation to a returnship program participant who was previously retired.

Are Returnships a Good Solution for Workers?

When a person decides to start working after a significant time away from their industry, barriers to re-entry are rife. Their resume looks unattractive compared to candidates with the latest accreditations, skills, and continuous work experience.

Besides the obvious shortfalls, this comparison also undermines the jobseeker’s confidence, which further harms their odds of coming across as the right choice in a job interview. A returnship takes many of these barriers away.

Benefits of Returnship Programs for Workers

  • Updated skill set: Relaunchers can catch up on industry changes that occurred during the period of time when they weren’t working. Besides skills, this may incorporate new knowledge on policy, workplace culture, and technology.
  • Confidence: Returnships (especially those that assign a mentor) can alleviate imposter syndrome and empower relaunchers to overcome confidence gaps.
  • Career development: Workers can upgrade their skill set and even discover new areas where they excel or have interests.
  • Potential for full-time employment: Most returnships operate with an intent to hire. This can save valuable time and effort with a job search.
  • Organizational insight: Returnship participants can experience firsthand the culture and type of work they would be performing as a full-time or part-time employee of the company before accepting an offer of employment.
  • Networking opportunities: Returnships create opportunities to create a network and collaborate with peers.
  • Mentorship: These programs often include mentorship which is valuable in getting their career back on track.
  • Convenience: Returnships are often conducted virtually and are usually designed to be flexible.
  • Income: Returnship programs are often paid and could include additional compensation or total rewards.

Key Challenges of a Returnship for the Participant

While returnships offer many benefits for job seekers, challenges do exist.

  • Menial work: If the program is not planned and executed well, returnship participants may be roped into performing tasks that are not valuable to their career development.
  • Wasted time: If participants in an ineffective program do not become competent enough to be hired, they have essentially spent their time serving your company as cheap labor without much to show for it.
  • Uncertainty of employment: While returnship opportunities are generally a means of recruitment, workers are not guaranteed a job at the end of a program.
  • Lack of income: Some returnships are unpaid or don’t pay a living wage. This may impose stress on the participant.

Common Career Paths that Lead to a Returnship

There are a variety of companies now offering returnship programs to experienced professionals. The details of the programs offered are as unique as the organizations themselves.  That said, there are certain careers in which job seekers may be able to get back to work more easily via a returnship.

Industries trending in returnship programs include technology (IT), software development, finance and investment banking, and manufacturing. Roles trending in returnship programs include software engineer, program manager, and data analyst.

These companies typically do not delineate their returnship programs for different positions. A company’s program is usually designed around general and significant knowledge of that industry. A full-time or part-time position may result based on the skill set, organizational need, and preference of a cohort member, but the returnship would not specifically train the participant for that position.

For this reason, returnships cannot accommodate participants with zero experience in the focus field. Common examples of career paths where a returnship makes sense are:

  • A parent who left the workforce for some years to be home while their children were small.
  • A person who decided to leave their job to be a homemaker and then, due to financial circumstances or personal preference, wants to re-enter the workforce.
  • A person who spent some years pursuing opportunities in a different field, but wants to revert to an industry they previously worked in.
  • A professional person who left their corporate position for some years to pursue a passion project, entrepreneurship, or other life goal.
  • A retired professional who, after some time away from the industry, decided to get back in the saddle.
A returnship project manager going a presentation to stakeholders.

Starting a Returnship Program at Your Organization

A LinkedIn survey found that 62% of workers had taken a gap at some point in their careers. This means there is a pool of future workers just taking a break. And some of those workers could be your returnship participants if you have a program to recruit them.

So what does it take to start a returnship program from the ground up?

Define Parameters

Address your organization’s willingness, bandwidth, and budget to build this program.

  • Are you ready to embrace this program as one of your talent development strategies?
  • How many hires do you hope to make from each cohort?
  • How large does each cohort need to be to accomplish this goal?
  • What are the minimum or maximum qualifications for viable candidates?
  • Do they need to have been out of the workforce for a certain amount of time? For a certain reason?
  • What do you hope to pay participants? What is the budget? Do your hiring goals align with this budget?

Determine Buy-In

Once you have determined what success looks like, shop the idea around.

  • Talk to the managers and employees in the departments in which you hope to hire. What are their department’s needs? What succession planning can be done?
  • What skills should be developed in the program?
  • What industry or policy changes need to be highlighted?
  • How long should the program be?
  • How can this department support training efforts?
  • Is there anyone excited about this work who can champion, contribute to or lead this project?

Assemble a Team

Identify the workgroup and empower identified project leaders to build out the infrastructure for this new program. Assign a project manager or program manager responsible for tracking milestones, driving accountability, communicating with stakeholders, and adhering to deadlines.

Consider the following:

  • Is your Human Resources team prepared for the unique process of finding, recruiting, and screening returning workers?
  • If they have not taken diversity and inclusion training, consider taking this step before the interview process begins. It is important to avoid bias (including unconscious bias).

Recruit

Once the program is built on paper, it will be time to market it.

  • Share the team’s success in building this program with your active employees.
  • Post this exciting news on social media.
  • Inform company alumni about the program.
  • Post success stories (once you have some).
  • Post job ads to attract applicants.

Get Feedback

Once the first cohort has completed the program, your workgroup should evaluate the program’s success. 

  • Were the hiring goals met?
  • Did you meet your budget?
  • How do your participants rate the experience?
  • Follow up with the departments receiving these full-time and part-time workers. Was the training adequate to prepare their new hires for their roles? Are there improvements or changes to consider?
  • Develop process improvements, and implement these for cohort 2.

Software to Aid Your Returnship Program

Whether you have an existing returnship program or are planning to start one, software is key. Without systems to keep you organized and efficient, your new program’s success could be at risk.

The tools that are most essential to efficiently run your program are:

Conclusion

When executed well, returnships offer invaluable professional opportunities to people who have taken career breaks. These folks can develop rusty skills into a honed skillset, get up to speed on their industries, and even learn to do an entirely “new to them” job.

When a program is successful, you hear feedback like this from a Goldman Sachs returnee, “The Returnship program gave my entire family the grace we needed for me to reestablish myself in the corporate world… I was promoted to Vice President nine months after the Returnship ended – an unlikely experience if I re-entered the workforce without the support of this program.”

Now more than ever, it is time for organizations to operate innovatively. Companies need all of the tools in their toolbox to compete. Returnships offer a beautiful blend of creative recruitment, targeted hiring, and diversity of the workforce.

Jodie Sandell PHR and SHRM-CP
Consultant, project manager, writer, and process improver with over 15 years of HRM experience
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Jodie Sandell holds a BA in Sociology from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, a paralegal certificate and both PHR and SHRM-CP certifications. She has spent most of her career working in legal, education, and HR - writing, managing projects, and improving processes. 

She recently founded All In Project Services LLC to pursue her passion for this work. In her free time, Jodie can be found reading, hiking, paddling or traveling with her family.

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