Jobs and the Future of Work

What are 'returnships' and how can the job market benefit?

'Returnships' can provide a pathway back into the workforce.

'Returnships' can provide a pathway back into the workforce. Image: Pexels/fauxels

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza
Author, Quartz
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Future of Work

  • Returning to the workforce after extended periods of time away has long presented problems for job applicants.
  • But as employers struggle to fill critical job openings because of record-low unemployment, organizations have become increasingly interested in people returning to work.
  • Returners also come with many years of experience and skills that employers can benefit from.
  • Some companies are now creating 'returnship' programs to help draw in these people.

Shruthi Lingarajegowda took a break from the workforce for seven years to care for her family. When she decided to return to her career as a software engineer in 2020, Lingarajegowda struggled to get recruiters to reply. The few who did call declined after learning about her career break.

“I was just frustrated,” she says. “One day I googled, ‘how do you get back to work after a break?’” She found an organization called Path Forward and signed up for email notifications about returnships, programs designed to bring experienced professionals back to the workforce after a break. “After I started applying for the returnships, I just kept getting calls,” she says.

Lingarajegowda entered the returnship program at GrubHub, where she received job training, mentorship, and a full-time role as a software engineer.

Call it what you like—a resume gap, a career break, “time away”—extended periods of time away from the workforce have long presented problems for job applicants. And while the effects of Covid have helped to normalize career breaks, professionals who have stepped away for more than a few years still find it difficult to return.

“Once you get past the two-year mark in the gap, you’re about half as likely to get a first-round screen for your application,” says Christine Winston, the interim executive director at Path Forward, a non-profit organization that helps companies create returnship programs. “If you specify on your resume that your career gap was to be home with children, you are another 50% less likely to get that first-round phone screen.”

As employers struggle to fill critical job openings amidst record-low unemployment—and aim to increase diversity in their workforces—organizations have become increasingly interested in welcoming the return-to-work talent pool back to the office. “When we got started [in 2016], there were fewer than 100 companies that were offering these programs in the US,” says Winston. “There are now between 200 and 225 companies that have ever offered programs in the US, and more internationally.”

Returners benefit, too, from gaining refreshed skillsets, mentorship, community, and the chance to prevent their careers and pay from falling off-track.

What is a returnship program?

A returnship helps experienced professionals who have taken a career break, usually of two years or more, return to full-time work. These employer-sponsored programs provide hard- and soft-skills training, social support and mentorship, and a pathway to employment.

Most programs are contract-to-hire, meaning that returners are employed as subcontractors and upon completion of the program are hired by the company. A smaller number are direct-hire, with participants employed by the company right away while still receiving the training and support that characterize returnships.

Though most programs are made of women professionals, anyone with a career break can apply. Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch, which works with employers to design and run returnships, says more men have attended their annual conference in recent years. Covid forced many people out of the workforce, and as caregiving duties are shared across genders, Fishman Cohen believes companies will see more gender diversity in these programs.

Employers are recognizing the value of returners

But despite the gains in shared caregiving, women are still far more likely than men to take career breaks for these responsibilities. Employers are finding the return-to-work talent pool an effective source of gender diversity, especially in mid- and senior-level roles.

“We were having slow progress for some of our diversity ambitions,” says Christie Lee, the returnship program manager at energy company Schneider Electric. “We were also struggling, like many companies, with the lack of diverse technical talent for critical roles and for succession planning.” To close the gap, the company looked for creative ways of recruiting women to tech jobs.

In 2022, Schneider Electric welcomed its first cohort of seven returners. “The program was very successful,” Lee says. “Of the seven returners, we hired five of them, and those people are still with us today and thriving.” In January, the company brought in a new cohort, more than doubling the size of the program.

Returners come with years, sometimes decades, of experience, and Fishman Cohen says employers are hungry for the skills of this demographic. “They know themselves better, they have lived more life, they have a better sense of where they can add value to an organization,” she says. “They’re in a relatively stable life stage, and they have an energy and enthusiasm about returning to work.”

How returnship programs work

Participants start with boot-camp style skills training and a detailed company orientation, then begin work on projects in the roles they’re expected to fill at the end of the program. Most programs last roughly twelve to sixteen weeks, although some, like the one at Goldman Sachs, last six months.

At professional services firm PwC, returners go through eight to ten weeks of training in requisite technical and soft skills. “We have training that’s just based on the workplace today,” says Jen Yanoff, who leads the program. “Training on how to collaborate, how to engage, how to be virtual, how to be in presentations. Then they go into a tailored technology track, at the end of which they usually [receive] a certification.”

Companies bring in cohorts of returners, usually fewer than two dozen at a time, who go through the process together, providing support and community. Venus Senjam, a senior project manager and returnship alumna at Schneider Electric, says hers became like family. Though they work on different teams in different cities, Senjam still meets with her cohort. “We take a lunch break and we talk,” she says. “We talk about everything we’re feeling.”

These programs are paid, though some returners may find that compensation during the training phase doesn’t meet their long-term needs. Jill Stapleton, a returner at PwC, says, “I wouldn’t have wanted to commit to that as my salary for my returning role, but it was certainly sufficient for daily expenses.” Still, training didn’t cost her a dime, and her pay increased upon being hired at the firm.

The goal of returnships is to help professionals return to the workforce full-time, and the chances of landing a permanent role are excellent. According to The Mom Project, a talent marketplace for women, the majority of returnships have a participant-to-hire rate of at least 80%.

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Why returnships matter

Returnships provide a way to reenter the workforce without starting over at the bottom. Because women are more likely than men to have resume gaps due to caregiving, these programs can help women avoid what’s known as the “mommy track,” which can mean stunted careers and lower pay.

“People who are high performers don’t lose their ability to be high performers simply because they take a career break,” says Fishman Cohen.

Yana Rodgers, the director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University, says she’s spoken to women whose qualifications have been questioned because of a career break. “There was widespread perception that their skills had atrophied,” she says. “These returnships are a great way to dispel the stigma of people returning back to work.”

Rodgers also believes in the economic potential of returnship programs. “I think returnships will go a long way to closing the gender pay gap,” she says. “Women are being tracked into these lower-paying jobs, whether it’s before they have kids, while they have kids, or after they have kids.” Returnships are one way of keeping women on an upward career trajectory.

According to Pam Cohen, chief data and analytics officer at The Mom Project, there’s also a direct link between returnship programs and long-term retention. “Most of the women coming back have an intention to actually stay in the workplace, and without these programs, oftentimes they don’t. They either don’t come back, or they come back to something that’s not in line with their skills or their abilities,” she says.

How returnships help workers who have taken a career break

In addition to role-specific training, returners receive a halo of benefits, with effects showing up throughout their careers in their confidence, community connection, and career trajectory.

Updating skills: If you left the workforce a decade ago, it’s unlikely you used Zoom or Slack. Many returners need a primer on basic business tech as well as remote and hybrid work best practices. “It’s not just about what’s new in technology, it’s also adapting to the new workplace because things change so quickly,” says PwC’s Yanoff.

Building confidence: Senjam, the returner at Schneider Electric, says her returnship helped her dispel self-doubt on the job. “I never felt any less than anyone,” she says. “But you start losing confidence when you’re not interacting [at a job], so it boosts you up.”

Finding community: Ashley Miller, who leads the returnship program at Goldman Sachs, says the training period is about reacclimating a once-familiar setting. “It’s a lot of hands-on, immersive experience with the teams that are hiring you,” she says. “However, you come in this very comfortable way with this cohort and community of other like-minded people.”

Picking up where they left off: “I was prepared to work my way back up and prove myself again,” says PwC’s Stapleton. “That was completely not needed in this. I had that training period where I was able to prove myself. I entered the workforce almost at the position I left, which I was not expecting.”

Putting a dent in the pay gap: The gender pay gap is the result of a myriad factors, among them the career breaks taken to care for children. By bringing those caregivers back into the workforce and helping them pick up their careers where they left off, returnships may help reduce the problems of the gender pay gap.

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Shifting industries: Returnships aren’t targeted toward career changers, but participants may find themselves pursuing their old role in a new industry. Before leading the program at Goldman Sachs, Miller was a returner herself, and made a shift from sports management to private wealth in part because the firm offered comprehensive training on the financial industry.

For those who have taken an extended career break, returnships can provide a pathway back into the workforce, plus a reboot of their technical skills and confidence. And in a strong US job market, companies have taken notice of their benefits, too, from filling critical positions to increasing gender representation in middle- and senior-level roles.

Effects of these programs have the potential to spread beyond the returners and their new employees and change the way we think about career breaks. Not only can returnships normalize return-to-work following career breaks, they can also keep more women in senior roles, and contribute to the end of the gender pay gap.

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