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Welcome Back to the Workforce, Mom and Dad

Returnship programs help midcareer professionals re-enter the workforce after taking extended breaks

A family with a baby sitting on a blanket in a park.

​Kathy Bayert is no stranger to the world of work. She has a master's degree in business from Northwestern University and experience working with PwC and IBM in Chicago as an organizational change strategy consultant. But at age 42, she faced a daunting task: rebooting her career after taking five years off to be home with her two children.

The inaugural six-month Returnship@SaraLee program provided a critical springboard back into the workforce. Bayert joined nine other women who were selected to work in sales, law, marketing, finance, research and development, and organizational development for the Downers Grove, Ill., consumer products company. At the program's conclusion, she was hired as senior manager of organizational effectiveness and charged with overseeing the returnship program. 

Returnship programs are geared toward midcareer professionals who left the workforce for personal reasons—often, but not exclusively, stay-at-home moms—and are now looking to return. The programs are similar to internships, but with higher-level assignments. Many of the participants contribute to the business in meaningful ways, sometimes even doing the same work that they would be expected to do if subsequently hired. The programs are almost always paid. 

"Returnships are an important recruitment tool for companies to get women back into the workforce in a meaningful way," said Bayert, who is now vice president, learning and advisory services, at the Chicago-based Network of Executive Women. 

Another advocate of such programs is Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO of iRelaunch, who consults to a wide swath of companies on career re-entry strategies and programming. Cohen (whose personal re-entry journey was the subject of a Harvard Business School case study first published in May 2003) successfully reprised her career as a financial services executive at Bain Capital following an 11-year hiatus to stay home with her four kids.

She encourages companies to use returnship programs to engage with experienced professionals returning from career breaks. 

"These candidates are an excellent investment," Cohen said. "Returning professionals offer enlightened employers a rare opportunity to hire people who have a level of maturity and experience not found in younger recruits. Using a returnship program as a screening tool lets employers skim the top talent from this pool and then make ultimate hiring decisions on the basis of meaningful work samples." 

Re-entry programs for professional women who have taken a career break serve a dual purpose: They advance gender inclusiveness and fill the leadership pipeline with experienced and exceptional people, says Tami Forman, executive director of Path Forward, a New York City-based nonprofit that helps companies create career re-entry programs. 

"We believe there is a real opportunity for companies to tap into a talent pool that often gets overlooked," Forman said.

The data backs up her assertion: Forty-three percent of "highly qualified" women (defined as those with a graduate degree, a professional degree or a high-honors undergraduate degree) with children take time off to be with their families, according to a Harvard Business Review report by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder of the Center of Talent Innovation. Nearly all women (93 percent) who have "off-ramped" their careers are eager to return to work full time, but only 40 percent successfully do so. 

Goldman Sachs first piloted its eight-week Returnship program in 2008. Eleven returnees interned in the company's New York City office, working in roles that did not interact with customers, such as operations and IT. Six received job offers. 

"We recognize that there's this talent pool out there of people who have been in jobs and have taken time off for a variety of reasons and they have a tremendous amount of experience," said Edith Cooper, global head of human capital management for Goldman Sachs. "It's been terrific both for us and for the returnees." 

Strengthen Tech Skills

Tech companies, which have some of the lowest employment participation rates of women of any sector, have grown increasingly interested in recruiting women who have taken career breaks. 

Earlier this year, for example, PayPal launched a re-entry program for software engineers in its San Jose, Calif., headquarters and hired seven of the nine participants. (One woman dropped out of the program after receiving a job offer from Google. The ninth woman didn't function well in a large corporate environment.) 

Tech obsolescence is a big part of the conversation. Many women need to update their skills and build their self-confidence before they can successfully re-enter the workforce. 

To address that challenge, GVS Labs in Silicon Valley recently partnered with IBM to launch the Reboot Career Accelerator, an eight-week returnship program to help returnees amp up their tech skills, among other things. 

Addie Swartz, CEO of ReacHIRE, a Concord, Mass.-based organization that partners with companies such as Google and Microsoft to provide training classes for women returning to the workforce, recommends a holistic approach to program development. 

"It's not enough to brush up skills," she said. "Brush-ups only brush the surface. In order for women to regain the business confidence and skills needed to successfully re-enter the workforce, we need to go beyond brushing up on skills and internship programs that air-drop women into new roles. 

"They need to create sustainable and holistic re-entry programs," Swartz said. This includes company-supported training, team support, mentors, peer and alumni networks, company advocates, and part-time and full-time paid positions. 

Strategies for Success

J.P. Morgan's ReEntry program, launched in 2013 for returning financial services professionals, includes training sessions aimed at re-acclimating participants to the workforce and acquainting them with company culture. In addition to education about financial services and technology, returnees are given real assignments with the goal of turning the gig into a full-time position. In 2015, the program had a 100 percent conversion rate. 

Credit Suisse's 11-week Real Returns program includes a week of training boot camp to refresh technical and soft skills, networking across divisions, and an ongoing speaker series. 

Cohen recommends the following strategies for companies that want to start a re-entry program: 

  • Articulate a vision or philosophy for the program.

  • Have an internal champion, such as the CEO.

  • Communicate with managers about expectations.

  • Start with a small group of five to 10 people in one geographic location in order to ensure "high-quality, high-touch support."

  • Structure it like a traditional (paid) internship program.

  • Have everyone start on the same day.

  • Conduct an orientation.

  • Introduce managers to participants.

  • Provide work assignments that are geared toward midcareer professionals.

  • Partner with an academic program to offer short-term skill-building programs for the return-to-work demographic.


As for compensation, "We've seen pay all over the map for returnships," Cohen said. "Some pay by the hour or by stipends. Or they prorate the pay for the time worked based on someone's salary in the firm who does a similar job." 

Interns in MetLife's Act2 program work in the actual job that they will do if they are hired and are paid market rate for their efforts. 

OnRamp Fellowship, a re-entry platform launched in 2014 that matches returning lawyers with midlevel attorney positions in law firms and legal departments, pays a $125,000 stipend plus benefits for one-year contract positions. Funded by a consortium of law firms, these fellowships give returning lawyers the opportunity to learn new skills and gain current experience. All nine of the original OnRamp fellows were hired full time. 

Make Re-Entry Programs Equal Opportunity

Men who take career breaks for similar reasons are welcome to participate in these programs. 

Prior to leaving the workforce to stay home with his two kids, John Bortscheller was a corporate account manager with Verizon in Denver. 

"Once you step off the career train, it's hard to jump back on," he said. 

When ReadyTalk, a Denver-based Web, audio and videoconferencing technology company, advertised its interest in working with people who had taken a career break, Bortscheller, 46, saw an opportunity to leverage his sales experience with a technology company. 

For the first half of his 22-week returnship, Bortscheller was responsible for generating sales leads on lower-level accounts. He later moved into enterprise accounts for larger customers and was subsequently hired to do that job, albeit at a higher level.

Expanded Recruiting Options

A formal, structured program isn't the only way to court people returning to the workforce after an absence. Sara Lee disbanded its returnship program and reshaped its recruiting strategy to source nontraditional candidates. 

"We folded our [new] recruitment efforts into our traditional recruiting process," Bayert said. 

Andrew Berkowitz, co-founder and chief creative officer at Teamsnap, an 85-person Web and mobile app company based in Boulder, Colo., estimates that the company has hired 15 to 20 stay-at-home parents looking to re-enter the workforce following a career break. As a distributed company (80 percent of employees work remotely), Teamsnap is attractive to people who need more flexibility and autonomy. 

"We've been able to hire incredibly skilled and talented people and move those employees into positions of greater responsibility," Berkowitz said. 

He urges companies that may be biased against people with resume gaps to take a closer look at what these candidates have to offer. 

Re-entry opportunities can also enhance a company's long-term appeal to younger employees. The Manpower Group report Millennial Careers: 2020 Vision indicates that 76 percent of Millennials plan to take a career break lasting longer than four weeks. Career re-entry programs signal to these young employees that, when they are ready to return, there is a path back in. 

"A career break is a pause, not a stop," Swartz said.

Arlene S. Hirsch is a noted career counselor and author with a private practice in Chicago, where she specializes in working with emerging adults and their families. Her books include How to Be Happy at Work (Jist Publishing, 2003), Love Your Work and Success Will Follow (Wiley, 1995), and The Wall Street Journal Premier Guide to Interviewing (Wiley, 1999). Her website is


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