Employers Use Returnships to Diversify Workforce

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek July 15, 2021
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Amazon

​Three years ago, Zeinab Yassin, 32, walked away from the T-Mobile franchise she co-owned so she could care for her son, who was born with medical conditions.

Today, she is nearing the end of a virtual 16-week returnship at Amazon with hopes that it will lead to a full-time position with the e-retail giant.

Employers are using returnships to attract more women into their workforce, according to Tami Forman. She is the executive director at Path Forward, a nonprofit that works with organizations to craft paid, midcareer internships for people trying to restart their careers after being unemployed for several years. These individuals may have left to take on caregiving responsibilities, been downsized or exited the workforce for other reasons.

Amazon recently partnered with New York City-based Path Forward to create its newest program.

"Companies come to us because they're looking for new sources of talent," Forman said. "And—important to say this—because companies want more women and they want more women in tech."

Nearly 2 million women have left the labor force since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a May 2021 report from the National Women's Law Center. Women saw their jobs disappear as businesses closed. The pandemic also decimated child care availability—the child care sector has lost 14.6 percent of jobs since February 2020—prompting many women to dial back work hours or leave their jobs.

Even before the pandemic and all of its stresses, Yassin said, exhaustion and a lack of sleep from caring for her son and daughter made it difficult to focus and be productive at her company, which had quadrupled its business.

Forman said she has seen employers become more aware of the child care problem many parents—and women in particular—face and the resulting impact on their workforces. They are starting to realize, she said, that there are "people out of the workforce who could be great for us, an untapped talent source we have been missing."

Amazon extends its child and elder care benefits to returnship participants to make its program attractive to caregivers.

"I do think companies have had their eyes opened to the struggles families had" and are not leaving it to the employee to figure out, Forman said. "If they have a ping-pong table in the game room, they should have a day care center for mom," she noted.

Filling in the Gap

Returnships have been around since Goldman Sachs created its own program in 2008, according to Forman. They provide a way to find qualified midcareer workers who need to refresh their skills, and they serve as pathways into the workplace for workers whose career pause created a gap in their resumes.

Amazon returnship participants work as business analysts, quality assurance analysts and software development engineers, and they may attend work-related social events, join an affinity group and attend workshops. Successfully completing the program can lead to full-time employment, with Amazon paying for relocation.

"The longer they are away from the workforce, the more support and structure [those workers] will likely need in order to ramp back to their profession, and this program provides that environment for them," said Alex Mooney, Amazon's senior diversity talent acquisition program manager.

The "return" aspect of these programs is about re-entering the workforce after a prolonged absence, according to Forman, and participants usually are people new to the company. Amazon's initiative is no different. While former Amazonians who paused their careers are welcome to apply, the new program was created to increase diversity among Amazon's workforce, Mooney said. He noted that 93 percent of returnship participants are women.

"We are also actively recruiting professionals who may have paused their careers due to an illness or injury or disability, when immigrating from abroad, because they are a military or trailing spouse or partner who has relocated for their significant other, and much more," he added.

Yassin credits Amazon's program with providing her the emotional and technical support she needed, including a manager, a mentor and an onboarding buddy.

"They understood that I need to warm up again to tools, protocols and definitions," she said of her team. "They understand that I need guidance." Additionally, she said, they respected her reasons for taking time off and didn't judge her for it or use it as an excuse not to hire her. 

Amazon plans to create 1,000 returnship slots over the next several years. Large programs typically have 75 to 100 participants.

Returnships also can be a branding opportunity, Forman pointed out. She has heard younger job applicants say they want to work for a company that values and supports women's careers.

"To current employees, Forman said, "it signals this is a great place [to work]." 

[Want to learn more? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]


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