Everyone knows what an internship is — it’s a fundamental building block to career success for young people looking to get their foot in the door or augment their schooling with some real-world experience. But it’s time to get familiar with a lesser-known recruitment tool: the returnship, structured programs targeting workers who have stepped back from their careers.
Like internships, returnships are generally short-term arrangements (a period of weeks or months) that may or may not lead to permanent employment, and similarly, they generally focus on training and building field-specific skills. For job seekers, they can be a valuable way to get current on technology and operations and to see if the company (or even the job itself) is a fit. And for the firms that offer them, they can be a fertile source of experienced, motivated workers — and a way to enrich and diversify the talent pipeline.
According to experts, returnships could now be more important than ever. Pandemic-related closures drove record numbers of workers into unemployment, and record numbers of workers — disproportionately women — took leave of their jobs entirely, whether to take care of children after school closures, because of exposure risk, or for other reasons. (In February, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the number of Americans who were not working and not able to look for work because of the pandemic at 4.2 million.)
Suzanne Rohan Jones, MS, a learning and development specialist and adjunct professor of psychology at Maryville University’s online psychology program, said that as vaccines roll out, schools reopen, and people start planning for a post-COVID future, returnships are more resonant than ever.
“So many workers are flooding back after [the] COVID turmoil and [are] trying different types of opportunities,” Rohan Jones pointed out. And companies are realizing, she continued, that these returning workers “have the soft skills and the motivation, know how to communicate, and have flexibility with hours, and we can teach them the tech skills they need or give them the training for what they need to do.”
Today, major corporations like Intuit, Goldman Sachs, Amazon Web Services, and NBCUniversal each offer their own take on returnships, and experts said they see increasing interest in the concept.
“A well-run, well-organized, broadly bought into, and flexible returners program can bring advantages to the whole workplace,” said Shiv Gupta, CEO of web services site Incrementors Web Solutions. “Done properly, it’s an opportunity to challenge company norms and learn from the large reserves of untapped talent that exist in places we don’t normally look.”
Returnships can be attractive to a number of different groups: parents or caregivers who stepped back from their careers to focus on other responsibilities, employees who took time off to deal with a health or personal issue, or workers who took a break to reassess their career path, for example. On the company side, returnships can be an avenue for recruiting workers with nontraditional backgrounds and work experiences. In fact, one of the biggest benefits of returnships is the opportunity they offer companies to widen their recruiting to groups that are often underrepresented, including older workers and more economically and racially diverse job seekers.
“The [candidates attracted to these roles] are super motivated, with a broader range of ages and abilities and with different educational and skill backgrounds, which adds more to a workforce with different strengths,” said Rohan Jones. “And that's a benefit to the employer.”
“[Returnships are] also a great way to increase diversity in hiring,” agreed Jana Tulloch, founder of HR consultancy Tulloch Consulting. “Many individuals who are out of the workforce tend to be older, and some jobs tend to be skewed toward younger workers. These types of programs promote inclusion and diversity and help remove bias in the hiring process.”
In addition to attracting new talent, experts noted that returnships can also be a pathway for bringing back standout former employees.
“A second [group to target] is someone who has left your [company] for other work opportunities and is wanting to return, either to their former position or to a new role that takes advantage of any new skills they may have acquired,” Tulloch said. “They are high performers and solid team members who left on good terms from their former organizations.
“Returnships can be tailored to attract former employees back into regular paid roles,” she continued. “For smaller companies, this can form a key part of their overall talent acquisition strategy, keeping communication channels open with former employees who left on good terms, and letting them know they would be welcome back.”
While individual company needs vary, experts said there are some universal best practices that can ensure both the firm and the job seeker get the maximum value from a returnship program. Most critically, they agree, is clarity about what the program offers and what the expectations of its participants are.
“For me, a best practice is really getting a firm understanding of what you want the program to accomplish, and tailoring the program to meet that need,” Tulloch said. “There should be specific outcomes that you're looking to gain from implementing such a program, and you should be able to report on the metrics associated with the value it brings to the company. Without this framework, returnships can falter and rather than being successful additional pipelines for top candidates, [they] can become a pool of underleveraged talent.”
“It does need to have structure,” Rohan Jones agreed. “It shouldn’t just be, ‘Well, sink or swim, we’ll see you in six months.’” Her recommendations: Specifically outline what skills the company will be training returners on, clearly document a list of responsibilities, and regularly give feedback to program participants, both during the program and at its close.
Homing in on the exact skills the program should teach is critical. While each applicant is going to bring their own background and set of skills to the table, experts agreed that a top priority should be bringing returners up-to-date on new software programs and technologies commonly used in the field — especially any programs or equipment that have been adopted recently. Whether it’s new sales tracking programs or phone-based apps used to record data, giving returning employees training can get them up to speed and comfortable with the technology.
Pairing up returners with in-house support also makes a huge difference. “Partner [returners] with another individual who can help them navigate any processes or changes that they may not remember or be familiar with,” Tulloch advised. “For larger organizations, if the returnship program supports more than one returning individual, a peer group can be helpful to candidates in normalizing any anxiety they may have about returning to the workforce.”
To successfully launch returnships, Rohan Jones recommended casting a broad net. “University career services departments post positions not just for current or recent alumni but for all levels,” she said. But broaden your reach outside those channels, she suggested.
“I would say the best options are through professional networking groups and organizations, as well as LinkedIn,” Rohan Jones added. "That's where [you’ll find] more people who are returning because that’s where they’re job searching.”
Above all else, get the word out. “There is a huge pool of candidates out there who are likely ready to return to the workforce but may not be focusing their efforts in ways that are bringing them much job-hunting success,” Tulloch said. “By advertising returnships, it creates awareness and accesses a pool of qualified individuals who would be great fits. This can shorten hiring cycles tremendously by proactively promoting an access point for individuals reentering the workforce.”
Ultimately, experts said, returnship programs give firms a chance to connect with quality candidates.
“The results can be gratifying for both employers and employees,” said Ben Reynolds, CEO and founder of investment research site Sure Dividend. “Businesses that invest their time and money in offering returnships to mothers and other people who’ve taken time off work can retain more loyal employees, increase employee engagement, and reach more potential candidates who are typically overlooked.”
And never underestimate how powerful the returnship experience can be — for all parties involved. “You can teach a lot of the hard job skills, but not the soft skills,” Rohan Jones said. “To hire someone who knows how to listen, how to interact, and how to function appropriately in the workplace and have that all ready to go? That’s a real benefit.”