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How to Help Employees Return from a Career Break

A woman and her daughter standing in front of a door.

​Before she left the workforce in 2015 to start a family and raise her children, ShayAnn Baker spent the prior five years working as a reporter/producer and the four years before that as a human resource specialist. When she was ready to start earning a paycheck again, she knew that she didn't want to go back to being a journalist.

"The newsroom is not a family-friendly place," Baker said. Instead, she decided to pursue a career in the public sector after being accepted into the inaugural class of Return Utah, a returnship program launched by the state. This is the only state program in the country that facilitates public-sector jobs for experienced professionals who are looking to re-enter the workforce after a career break.

In the wake of the pandemic, some companies have created new programs to help returning employees, while others expanded or reimagined existing programs. The goal they share is to assist experienced professionals who have taken career breaks in re-entering the workforce, or "relaunching," without having to start over in an entry-level role.

"Most relaunchers in employer-sponsored career re-entry programs will return to the same or similar roles as those they left, or else have some very strong transferable skills that apply to the new field," said Carol Fishman Cohen, co-founder and CEO of iRelaunch, a Miami- and Boston-based consulting and training company that specializes in career returnship programs.

Baker initially trained for a communications specialist role where her experience "telling stories" as a reporter/producer would be considered an asset. However, after she graduated from the 16-week project-based program, she received two offers: one for the communications role and the other in the human resources department as a program manager for the Return Utah program. 

Although she initially hesitated to return to HR, she realized that running a first-of-its-kind program presented a unique career opportunity.

"It makes sense for HR to run and oversee returnship programs because HR plays a pivotal role," Baker said. This includes recruiting talent, training managers and providing resources to ensure that expectations are met on both sides. 

Flexibility Is Key

"The pandemic solved a problem that had been keeping returning professionals out of the workforce," Fishman Cohen said. "Many couldn't have a full-time job in the office because they needed more flexibility. Now, more relaunchers can realistically consider a return to work because there are more flexible working arrangements."

During the pandemic, Amazon, Cognizant and TD Bank all found that the transition from in-person to remote work worked well for both the companies and their re-entry program participants.

"Prior to our launch last summer, Amazon found that in-person/in-office support would provide the best experience for someone who is restarting their career," said Alex Mooney, Amazon's senior diversity talent acquisition manager in San Francisco. "While we still believe that in-person communication and interaction are valuable ways to collaborate, feedback from our returners has shown that they appreciate the virtual returnship opportunity."

The same can be true in banking. "In our wildest dreams, we never considered making the [career re-entry] program remote," said Sarah Cole, a senior vice president and program manager at TD Bank in New York City. "But when the whole company went remote in March of 2020, we had no choice." They also extended the length of the program to six months and plan to keep that extension in place for the foreseeable future.

"The benefit of remote programs is that it allows for a more gentle transition back into the workforce, especially for people who have children," Cole said.

"With the onset of the pandemic, Cognizant recognized the need to conduct this as a virtual program," said Jennifer Green Godette, the IT services company's director of equity and inclusion based in Dallas. "As the world begins to shift and pivot, we will remain agile and nimble so we can continue to provide the most meaningful and engaging experience for our participants."

The Return Utah program went one step further by allowing returners to participate remotely on a part-time basis and continue afterward in part-time roles, a major selling point for Baker, who still has young children at home. 

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Flexible Work Arrangements]

Expanding the Talent Pool 

The TD Bank program, which was launched in collaboration with iRelaunch, is designed to help professionals with at least seven years of experience and a career break of two years or more relaunch their banking careers. The initial cohort had five women and one man.

"These programs can be a win-win for employers and returners. It gives employers opportunities to gauge whether the returner is a good fit for the organization, and it helps returners gain the skills, confidence and connections they need to be successful," said Laura Picone, a senior vice president and program manager at TD Bank.

"One of the primary goals of the program is to increase representation of women in senior leadership roles," Cole said. "It doesn't matter why they took a career break. During the interview process, we are able to weed out people with a troubled work history or performance problems. As we got to know them, we found out that it was often for child care reasons or because they were taking care of sick relatives."

The pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on working women. Statistics show that nearly 2.2 million women left the U.S. labor market since the beginning of the pandemic, either because they lost their jobs or because of child care or caregiving responsibilities. While returnship programs are gender-neutral, the majority of program participants have traditionally been women—and many still are. For example, more than 93 percent of the participants in Amazon's expanded returnship program are women.

"We found that the labor market disruptions caused by COVID presented opportunities" to help more women restart their careers, Mooney said. "Had there been no labor market disruptions, we may not have expanded our program as quickly to support more professionals in more locations."

"The pandemic opened a lot of executives' eyes to why professionals take career breaks," said Tami Forman, chief executive of Path Forward, a nonprofit in New York City that specializes in career re-entry programs. "What hasn't rebounded with the economy is women's participation rates in the labor force. A lot of families are still dealing with the ramifications of the pandemic."

Fishman Cohen of iRelaunch agrees. "Many of the first return-to-work programs were gender diversity programs—and some still are. But the focus has shifted from gender diversity to becoming part of an employer's talent acquisition strategy because employers realize that these women are a phenomenal untapped talent pool," she said.

Wells Fargo's Glide-Relaunch program looks for experienced professionals who want to rejoin the workforce after taking a current career break of two or more years for such life events as military service, starting or raising a family, caring for a family member, teaching, volunteer work, entrepreneurial ventures, political office, community service, continuing education, and many other professional or personal pursuits.

Cognizant launched its first returnship program in India during the first quarter of 2021. The initial cohort included 12 women who had at least five years of professional experience in technology and had taken at least a two-year career break. At the conclusion of the program, all 12 participants received a job offer and 11 participants chose to relaunch their careers with Cognizant. Since then, the company has hosted seven cohorts (six in India and one in the U.S.) and graduated 81 returners with a 99 percent conversion rate. In 2022, they plan to double the number of cohorts and increase the size of each cohort from 10 to 20.

"We believe that a break in a professional's career can provide an opportunity to reflect, find areas of focus and return stronger to the next phase of their professional journey with a renewed sense of purpose," Green Godette said. 

HR's Role 

While the Return Utah program is managed by the state's human resources division, HR often plays more of a supporting role in other organizations. At Amazon, the "returnship program manager owns the program from end to end, including orientations and training, removing roadblocks, and scaling the program overall," Mooney said. "Our recruiters act as talent agents, helping the candidates refresh their interviewing skills and preparing to speak to the work they accomplished in the years prior to their career break."

At TD, HR is involved both in recruiting and day-to-day implementation of the returnship program. But the program itself is run by two senior vice presidents who are part of the senior leadership banking team and manage the program part time.

Because the majority of returners are older women, it also isn't uncommon for career re-entry programs to be part of an organization's diversity, equity and inclusion strategy. Looking to the future, Forman sees large health care companies as the next sector to embrace these career re-entry programs, while Fishman Cohen believes the Return Utah program is a sign that the public sector may be the next frontier. Either way, these programs are not exclusively the domain of large companies.

As program manager of the firm’s Women Back to Work effort at Akraya, an IT tech consulting and talent solutions company in San Francisco, Mira Stoimenova partners with companies to develop programs and opportunities.

"There are two ways to get started. You can start with a single cohort of five to seven people or create returnships for experienced professionals as direct hires on a case-by-case basis," Stoimenova said. "The goal is to have a commitment, a budget and a role that the person can convert to."

Experts agree that in order for a program to be successful, it is important to have buy-in from senior leaders, training for hiring managers, mentoring, skill development and support. While these programs are primarily designed to tap into a unique and diverse talent pool, Forman sees an additional benefit.

Companies with career re-entry programs "send a message to younger employees who are planning to take a career break that the company cares about them," Forman said, "and that there is a pathway back so that they won't have to start over." 

Arlene Hirsch is a career counselor and author based in Chicago.


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