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Returnships: a win-win idea for returning to the workplace

Nearly 40% of experienced, professional women leave their jobs for a significant amount of time to care for a child or other family member. A recent Pew Research report found that this drop-out rate is a significant driver of the persistent gender pay gap.

Those leavers who want to return to work after a lengthy break face some dismal obstacles. Companies are often suspicious of workers returning after a long hiatus. Many carry an ingrained bias against workers without recent experience, fearing an outmoded skill set, stale professional network, and questionable long-term commitment. Just getting an interview with a large resume gap is a big challenge. This can lead to a loss of confidence for the would-be returning worker, making the job search even that much tougher. And the confidence gap on both sides undermines the potential for a positive dynamic.

Carol Fishman Cohen, a finance professional with an MBA from Harvard, left her job at Drexel Burnham to raise her children. Eleven years and four children later, she decided it was time to return to work. After encountering, and overcoming, many of the challenges in her path, she opted for a career change. She co-founded iRelaunch in 2012, which provides services and support to professional women looking to restart a career after an extended absence. iRelaunch connects these women to employers looking to tap into this pool of qualified professionals job candidates. It also holds training courses, publishes guidance materials, organizes conferences, and provides networking opportunities for women looking to return to work.

Yet, there are still issues to be resolved in workers returning to the workplace after years away. To address the concerns of both employers and prospective employees, new employment models have grown up. Unexpectedly, the earliest movement has come from the finance sector (unexpected because the sector is not exactly well known for innovation in human capital). Back in 2008, GoldmanSachs launched its “Returnship” program, aimed at women returning to finance after a lengthy absence. The ten-week program matches participants with mentors and provides training in current systems and analytical methodologies. The program has been hugely successful, and is now highly selective. In fact, only 19 of more than 1,000 applicants were chosen for the 2016 class.

Others in the financial sector have followed Goldman’s lead. Since 2014, JPMorgan, Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse have all instituted programsfor workforce returners (which is really interesting, since finance is one of the most tradition-bound sectors; it just goes to show what innovative leadership can achieve).

The movement has now spread to other industries as well.  Pepsico is poised to launch its “Ready to Return” program this April. And Vodafone has just introduced its global “Reconnect” program, operating in 26 countries, looking to recruit more than 1,000 program participants by 2020.

These programs have generally been built on the frameworks that support internship programs. Most involve a paid limited employment term (usually between 8 – 12 weeks) of employment. Participants are assigned to work on a team, on a specific project. Crucially, they are also assigned a mentor, and provided training, coaching and networking opportunities.

Reentry momentum is now coming from the tech sector, long troubled by a relative lack of women in professional and leadership roles. The Society of Women Engineers has partnered with iRelaunch to create a STEM Reentryprogram for engineering and technology companies. Together they recruited seven companies to participate in a pilot program. One of those pilot participants, Johnson Controls, the global leader in building and automotive technology, just launched its “Next Chapter” program. It is now actively seeking women who have been out of the workforce for two or more years and want to be employed using their analytic and engineering skills. And Intuit, the creative techies behind Turbotax and Mint.com, has been running “Intuit Again” for the past year, drawing female software and computer engineers back into the workforce where they are much needed.

Other tech companies are taking notice. A recent article cited an impressive list of companies who are now offering “returnships”  (the term, by the way, has been trademarked by GoldmanSachs) and recruiting reentering, including GoDaddy, Coursera, Zendesk and Cloudflare.

The movement continues to grow. And it isn’t just about women returning after raising children. Men are increasingly participating, returning after child (or elder) care responsibilities. Other returnees include those who have taken a hiatus for elder or other care, returning expats, and those who took a break for a health (or any) reason.

This is great news for employers who are committed to increasing the proportion of women in management and leadership roles, and are concerned about diversity in their workplace. And with the current intense competition for talent, tapping into a pool of highly qualified workers with substantial knowledge, efficiency, and expertise looks like a great option. Employers without a current program to recruit these returners might consider instituting a program, maybe even joining with others in their industry to create and promote one. After all, it’s hard to imagine a more win-win scenario!

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