Consider a Returnship Program as a Source of Untapped Business Talent

There's a common form of job discrimination that isn't illegal. Job-seekers returning to the workforce after putting their careers on pause complain about it all the time. It's discrimination against them by employers skeptical about whether their knowledge and skills required for an open position are up to date. While it's disconcerting to job-seekers, it's understandable for employers. After all, it's a rational concern.

Returning to the Workforce

But, for some employers, there's a middle ground between rolling the dice, and just saying 'no' to applicants trying to re-enter the labor force after being on the sidelines. The "returnship" concept is designed to bridge the gap. It's recently gained traction in the financial services, tech and consulting sectors — and it may be valuable in other industries, too.

Typically, these programs target parents — both men and women — who took time off to raise children. They also might help people who took leave to care for convalescent loved ones.

Screening Tool

In a nutshell, a returnship is an internship for someone re-entering the workforce who shows potential for ultimately receiving a full-time job. "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," according to Carol Fishman Cohen, the founder of a re-entry firm known as iRelaunch.

But it's not merely a trial run based on skills they developed years ago. People who are given returnships receive fresh training, guidance and other learning opportunities to bring them up to speed on a job, or various jobs, within the sponsoring organization.

Returnships can be general purpose in nature, giving participants a broad orientation applicable to a variety of kinds of jobs. Or they can be narrowly targeted, focusing on updating and building up a specific set of skills.

Like a traditional internship, a typical returnship program will only last a few months or a year, with no commitment to hire program participants when the program ends. Sixteen weeks is a common duration period.

Pay Practices

Compensation practices vary. Trial and error may be the only way you can learn what you need to pay promising candidates to apply for a returnship program. Keep in mind, though, that strong returnship candidates will have had relatively high-paying jobs prior to their hiatus from the workforce. That could mean they'll turn their noses up at what strikes them as a low-ball offer.

A key difference between a returnship and hiring someone merely on a trial basis is that you're not raising false hopes of a job offer when the program ends. Plus, you're providing enough training and work experience to make the returnship attractive to draw a strong pool of applicants for slots in the program.

Back in 2005 the economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett used the term "on-ramp" to describe what employers could construct for people trying to get themselves back into responsible jobs, years after exiting via an off-ramp. Since then, the concept has matured. Several consulting firms have sprung up to help companies create their own returnship programs. Examples include:

  • reachHIRE,
  • Women Back to Work, and
  • iRelaunch.

"We assist organizations in designing, introducing, implementing and expanding return to work internship programs, an essential initiative for companies committed to reintegrating experienced professionals into their organizations," explains iRelaunch.  

Many Happy Returns

Before you launch a returnship program consult with a team of advisors who are knowledgeable about key areas for your industry and business in general. The more high-level support you get, the better your chances of operating a successful program with many happy returns.

Returnship Design Tips

Carol Fishman Cohen, the founder of a re-entry firm knowns as iRelaunch, laid out a case for returnship programs in a Harvard Business Review article titled "The 40-Year-Old Intern." It identifies the following key elements of an effective program:

Don't reinvent the wheel. If you already have a traditional internship program, use that as your starting point for designing a returnship.

Look for prospects on university campuses. If recruiting traditional interns on college campuses is part of your current strategy, emphasize that there are no age ceilings for eligibility. You'll find strong returnship prospects in colleges and universities brushing up on their skills.

Create formal links with universities. Some schools target people rejoining the job market for special tailored classes. You might do well to arrange to accept a certain number of their students into your returnship.

Integrate hiring managers into the program. The more the people in your organization connect with returnship participants, the better they can spot potential hires and guide the person running the program to make it most productive as a source of talent.

Cohen also urges employers to find a strong champion for the program. For example, when the Sara Lee Corporation  started its returnship program, they enlisted the help of a CEO who once took years off to raise children before returning to the workforce.

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