Returnships Can Help Unemployed Ease Back into the Workforce

 

By Theresa Agovino January 18, 2019
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​Like many members of the Fortune 100, United Technologies Corp. (UTC) hires hundreds of people a month. This month, however, three have something unique in common. They are entering the company's Re-Empower Program, which aims to bring back into the workforce those who put their careers on hold.

The 16-week paid "returnship" is open to people who've been out of the workforce for at least two years. They may have taken a career break to raise a family, care for elderly parents or go back to school. UTC, which makes products for the aerospace, defense and building industries and is headquartered in Farmington, Conn., started its initiative last year. Eighteen of the 22 people who completed the program were hired on either a full-time or contract basis. The program is open to anyone, but some participants have been former UTC employees.

"We are always looking for ways to attract experienced talent," said Shanda Hinton, global diversity talent attraction leader at UTC. "This is an unexplored talent pool."

More employers are paying attention to it now, however. Thirty-eight corporate programs were launched in the United States between 2016 and 2018—roughly 13 a year. That's up from one in 2013 and three in 2014, according to iRelaunch, a Boston-based firm that helps companies set up the returnship initiatives. The company said there are about 90 global corporate programs, although it hasn't been involved in all of them.

[HR Q&A: Diversity Initiatives: How can HR help introduce more people with disabilities into the workforce?]

Apple and investment manager The Vanguard Group announced this month that they would start re-entry initiatives.

Such arrangements are flourishing due to their success rates, the tight labor market and companies' attempts to diversify their workforces.

Returnship programs were largely started by Wall Street firms. Early adopters included Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase. In 2015, iRelaunch joined forces with the Society of Women Engineers to encourage technology firms to establish returnship programs. The conversion rate from internship to full-time employment in the tech sector averaged 85 percent over the last two years, according to iRelaunch.

"We see the proliferation [of returnships] continuing because of the stellar hiring results these programs are producing," said Carol Fishman Cohen, chair and co-founder of iRelaunch. "They are even more attractive when you are in a full labor environment."

The U.S. unemployment rate was 3.9 percent in December, up slightly from 3.7 percent in November. Talent is getting harder to keep. Last year, an estimated 42 million people voluntarily quit their jobs, up 11 percent from 2017, according to the Work Institute, a Franklin, Tenn.-based consulting firm. The institute predicts that, if the trend continues, the number will jump 14 percent to 48 million by 2020, or 1 in 3 workers.

To replace those workers, companies launch returnship programs to draw in applicants who may want to come back to work but have been out of the office for some time. Women who have halted their careers are a huge pool of untapped talent. There are 2.6 million women who are not in the workforce, hold bachelor's degrees, are between ages 25 and 54, and have children under age 18. Eighty percent of those women are interested in returning to work, according to Cohen. She added that 93 percent of the people who attend iRelaunch's conferences are women.

Yet, even in a tight labor market, recruiters often overlook individuals with career gaps.

"You get 100 applicants, and often those with a career break go to the bottom of the pile or off to the side. Either consciously or unconsciously, there are biases," Hinton said. "We are missing out on a source of talent. "

Initiatives like Re-Empower can help eliminate such biases, experts said. Details vary between company programs, although the basic structure is similar. Typical programs require applicants to have been out of work for around two years and to have several years of work experience. Those selected are paid to work between 12 and 16 weeks; a few programs last from only eight weeks to as much as six months. Participants are usually assigned a mentor and a buddy to help steer them through the experience. Members of the same returnship class join regular meetings, often virtual, to learn about various workplace issues and exchange information about their experiences.

That extra support is key to making the programs successful.

"A huge reason people never even attempt to come back to work is that their skills aren't up-to-date," said Jennifer P. Howland, pathways program executive at IBM, which launched its Tech Re-Entry Program in 2016. She said that participants are each assigned a mentor who, along with the managers, can identify gaps in individuals' skills and recommend ways to close them. "It is critical they work with the mentor," she added.

Seventy individuals have participated in IBM's program since it started, and 92 percent of them were recommended as hires. Not all of them were hired, and some did not accept the positions they were offered, Howland said.

Selecting the right positions for program participants is also vital, especially in fast-changing industries like technology, where skills quickly become outdated. For example, Hind said that software development isn't the best arena for those re-entering the workforce because the specialty is constantly transforming. Areas like product engineering and project management are a better fit.

Finding managers committed to the project is paramount. "These [re-entering] individuals take a little more hand-holding," said Bobbie Davis, director of talent enablement at Mastercard, which piloted its program in 2017. Davis said that many of the candidates have been out of the workplace for a while, and returning is a significant change in their lives. "They are going to need to be more closely monitored."

Last year, Mastercard welcomed 31 individuals into its program, up from eight in 2017. This year, the company plans to include more than 50 people. It hired six of the eight individuals in its first class and more than half of those from the second year, although that may increase. She hopes the conversion rate to full-time hires will reach 75 percent. There will always be individuals who don't fit with the company or decide they'd rather not accept a position. "I know we will never be 100 percent," she said. "[But] it is still a new program, and it has given us a pipeline into a diverse workforce."

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