How Organizations Are Helping More Professionals Return to Work After Extended Absences



When asked to picture an intern, you may imagine a young, coffee-fetching, paper-stapling, fresh-out-of-college 20-something. However, a new group is entering the internship scene, and they’re not so inexperienced. Quite the opposite, in fact.

I’m speaking of seasoned professionals who have taken extended career breaks and are now reentering the workforce through “returnships.”

A returnship is a higher-level version of an internship. It acts as a bridge back to mid-to-senior-level roles for professionals who left the workforce for an extended period. The most common example is a woman who has taken a few years off to raise a child, but many other individuals may benefit from returnships as well, including those recovering from injury or illness, retired military members, and those who took time off to care for ill or elderly relatives.

Goldman Sachs first introduced the concept of a returnship in 2008 (and the company has since trademarked the term, so you may want to name your program something different). Other firms have since followed suit with similar programs of their own, such as the Return to Bay Street program offered by the Canadian professional women’s network Women in Capital Markets.

What a Returnship Is Like

Typically lasting a few weeks or a few months, returnships are short-term, paid placements that may lead to permanent employment. During a returnship, returners usually work full-time in order to get reacquainted with the 9-5 rhythm.

One of the trickiest parts about taking an extended leave is that it’s difficult to stay relevant. Technology keeps changing and the job market keeps evolving, even while you’re out of the game. This is why most returnships allow participants to attend workshops that help them both brush up on old skills and learn new skills they’ll need to succeed in the current economic landscape.

The other challenge that comes with an extended absence is the collapse of a person’s professional network, which can restrict their access to career opportunities going forward. In addition to skills workshops, many returnships also make time for returners to attend professional networking events to help them rebuild their networks.

Aside from the paycheck, the foot in the door, and the training opportunities, perhaps the greatest value of returnships is that they provide support and a boost of confidence to returning talent. Gone are the doubts about getting hired with a lengthy employment gap and the anxieties over outdated digital skills. Entering their programs with a cohort of individuals in similar situations, returners get the chance to be trainees again, allowed to learn, make mistakes, and grow.

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What Employers Get Out of It

Similar to an internship, a returnship provides employers with a “try before you buy” solution to hiring. It’s one thing for hiring managers to say they will hire without bias, but it’s another thing to actually take the risk. Recruiters and hiring managers are constantly worried about bad hires, and for good reason: Making the wrong hire can be incredibly costly, and it can sully a hiring manager’s reputation forever. Thus, many hiring teams feel it is safer to keep doing what they’ve always done.

However, returnships can help address this. Since a returnship program has a set end date, there is no pressure to offer employment at the program’s conclusion if the fit isn’t good. This gives hiring managers and recruiters more incentive to take risks and tap previously overlooked talent pools. Returnships, then, can be key ways to build diversity and fill especially niche positions. There is also huge potential for savings, as returners bring years of industry experience and thus will need less time to get up to full productivity.

The Elephant in the Room

Conversations about returnships often gloss over the fact that the need for these kinds of programs is driven by the hurdles working women have long faced. Women have typically carried the duty of caring for children and loved ones. Once on the so-called “family track,” women often earn less and face more discrimination when it comes to assignments and promotions.

Furthermore, there is a bias, often unconscious, against hiring people who have taken time away from their careers for any reason. These people are perceived as less committed and less driven. While not directly targeted at women, this bias against employment gaps affects them especially heavily, as they are usually the ones assuming extended leaves to act as caregivers.

While returnships are praised by some as positive steps to help women regain footholds in their careers, others caution these same programs can undermine a participant’s experience and value while distracting them from a search for a permanent position.

Overall, returnships seem to be satisfying a demand in the employment market. They have especially gained popularity in the tech industry, where representation of women has been historically low. But regardless of the sector, returnship programs can offer many benefits for both employers and returning employees alike.

Henry Goldbeck is the president of Goldbeck Recruiting, Inc.

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