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'Returnships' Help More Utahns Get Back to Work

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Thursday, July 20, 2023   

By Ramona Schindelheim for WorkingNation.
Broadcast version by Alex Gonzalez for Utah News Connection reporting for the Working Nation-Public News Service Collaboration

As employers struggle to find talent, it appears the stigma of resume gaps is fading.

"We're seeing significant progress in what we call the institutional shift toward normalizing career breaks - so normalizing the career break that is part of a career path and the concept of taking career breaks itself," says Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch, a career reentry company.

By Cohen's count, iRelaunch has worked with more than 250 companies since 2007 to create programs for professionals looking to relaunch their careers after being out of the workforce for at least one year to 20+ years.

Returnships as an On-ramp

A vast majority of the return-to-work programs are returnships, similar to paid internships. Unlike an internship, returnships are not entry-level roles and employers have the intent to hire and convert the returnship into a full-time job. Programs vary in length, depending on the employer.

iRelaunch provides transitional support to both employers and professionals reentering the workforce with manager training, coaching and mentoring, and creating cohorts for participants. Cohen says participants are mostly women but also include men.

Reasons for extended absences from the workforce range from raising families to medical conditions, elder care, being a military spouse, personal pursuits, or retirees deciding to come out of retirement.

"The common factor is that these reasons are for something external and have nothing to do with a person's work performance," notes Cohen.

She explains that while career breaks are becoming more common, it's not the only reason employers are looking past resume gaps.

"The biggest factor is a greater recognition by employers of the attributes of professionals who have taken career breaks," says Cohen. "This is a pool of people who are educated, have great work experience, and are in a relatively stable life stage."

Returnships Move to the Public Sector

Returnships began in financial firms more than a decade ago with Goldman Sachs credited with starting them.

They spread to the tech sector and in 2015, iRelaunch partnered with the Society of Women Engineers to create the STEM Reentry Task Force and now counts 40 company participants including Intel, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Ford, and General Motors. Almost 1,000 professionals have participated in the STEM Reentry programs, according to Cohen, with 85% hired into permanent roles.

Cohen says the latest wave of employers to embrace these return-to-work programs are in the public sector citing the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, and Utah -the first state to offer a career reentry program of this kind.

"We, on a state level, certainly are experiencing a labor shortage just like everyone else is, so we need access to quality candidates," says Shay Baker, program manager for Return Utah which specifically recruits individuals who have taken career breaks for mid-career-level roles at state agencies.

"Also, like everyone else, we had a lot of women in particular leave the workforce during the height of COVID so we are utilizing it to get more women in the workforce," notes Baker.

Scores of women were forced to leave the workforce when schools and daycare centers shut down during the pandemic, leaving working mothers juggling the management of full-time childcare and a full-time job.

Return Utah was launched in 2021 with the help of Lieutenant Governor Deidre Henderson who had taken a career break herself to raise her family.

The program runs 16 weeks and offers cohort participants training, coaching, and support.

To date, 42 people have completed the program with 60% hired in temporary roles and 92% converted to full-time jobs, according to Baker. She notes several other states and cities have reached out, expressing interest about starting returnships.

Baker speaks from personal experience. The former television journalist took an eight-year break to raise her children and applied to Return Utah when a communications role at a state agency opened up. "I felt intimidated about having workplace conversations. I really had fallen behind in regard to any technical aptitude and technology," says Baker.

Addressing Skills Gaps

Those who run returnship programs encourage professionals to network and research products, updates, and services in their fields. In certain technology fields, they advise upskilling through bootcamps, or online courses may be needed.

Concerns about technical skills alone, say some, should not deter people trying to return to the workplace.

"Returners by definition typically are people that have a certain amount of years of experience. They've managed people before. They've managed organizations before. They may not have the latest technology tools in their toolkit but that's something they can learn if they are someone who embraces learning," says Addie Swartz, CEO of ReacHIRE. The organization works with about 50 companies including Wayfair and Fidelity to develop 6-month returnships and training programs.

People looking to return to the workforce can sign up, receive instructional content, attend webinars, learn about job openings, and submit resumes to reacHIRE's recruiters. Swartz stresses the importance of being able to transfer skills into different industries like tech and biotech. She adds, "We've moved marketing people into finance roles. We've done all kinds of things because smart, capable people can move into different industries, different segments of industries."

ReacHIRE boasts a 92% success rate in converting returnships into permanent roles. Swartz says it is helping companies grow their diversity pipelines. "Not only do we get this amazing talent back into the workforce, but they are actually staying and growing in their organizations."

A Lesson in Persistence

One of ReacHIRE's success stories almost never materialized.

Sujatha Kumarappan almost gave up on her career as a software engineer when she hit roadblocks with employers. "As soon as they asked, 'Tell me about yourself' and I said that I had a break, sometimes I wouldn't get a call back. Sometimes, they'd say, 'No, we are looking for someone who is still actively working,'" says Kumarappan.

When her family moved from India to the U.S. eight years ago, she took a break to raise her children and rejections started eroding her confidence. "It was a bit disappointing for me which made me feel like this is not going to work out and it was reducing my confidence level more and more," says Kumarappan.

Through social media, she learned about ReacHIRE, applied and landed a 6-month returnship at a financial firm where she was hired with the title Software Engineer II. Four months in, Kumarappan learned she would be hired permanently.

Now she's spreading the word for people in the same situation, emphasizing the importance of being part of a cohort and "feeling and sharing with someone who was going through the same experience," says Kumarappan.

Personal Obstacles

That sense of community can be key for returners to overcome personal obstacles. "On a personal note, I would say confidence and imposter syndrome are the biggest things that they are grappling with and are holding them back," says Christine Winston, executive director at Path Forward, a nonprofit that assists people who take breaks for caregiving return to the paid workforce.

Winston stresses, "Try to get educated about what employers are looking for in your field today and figure out how your past experience fits in there."

Convincing Skeptics

Path Forward counts 100 companies it's worked with since starting in 2016 ranging from Walmart and Amazon to startups. While employers may like the idea, it can be a hard sell to put into motion.

"For recruiters, the question is, 'Are my hiring managers going to be receptive to this?' For a hiring manager, it's 'Am I going to get penalized for taking a chance on somebody who has a career break?'" says Winston.

"Those are the things that we work to help them get past so they can get these programs set up and start to hire this talent - at which point the talent speaks for itself," she explains. "I love the converts that we see, the skeptics who become complete converts once they have gone through this program once and see the kinds of talent that they hire."

Ramona Schindelheim wrote this article for Working Nation.

Support for this reporting was provided by Lumina Foundation.

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