Software engineer Tasneem Saghir stepped out of the workforce in June 2021 due to a series of life events including a major move to the U.S. from India, increasing family obligations and health issues. This year, as she geared up to start work and get her career back on track, the gap on her resume loomed large in her mind.
Until she learned about returnships.
“The biggest problem I faced was not getting interview calls,” Saghir told Built In. “Recruiters were approaching me over the phone and email, but when they got to know about my career break they never gave me a call back.”
What Is a Returnship?
Employer attitudes are shifting, however. An increasing number of companies are setting up formal paid returnship programs for people who have left the workforce for a year or more and are seeking to return. In the past couple of years, Amazon launched its returnship program, Tesla kicked off its Recharge Returnship Program, and Palo Alto Networks teamed up with the Women Back to Work program to offer its own returnship program.
Saghir hooked up with WBW, one of several organizations that work with returners and employers with returnship programs. WBW helped Saghir land a senior software engineering role in August at LinkedIn’s ReturnIn returnship program.
What Is a Returnship?
Returnship programs are similar in concept to internships, providing on-the-job training and mentoring to people who have work experience but have left the workforce for a year or more and are seeking to re-enter it.
The goal of these programs is to ease the transition back into the workforce after a long break, which tends to range between three to five years, Arleen Gallagher, partnership director for tech consulting and recruiting company Akraya’s Women Back to Work program, told Built In.
Returners are often women who have temporarily left the workforce to raise children, become primary caregivers for elderly family members, relocate with spouses or partners, seek self-care, or recover from bereavement.
And when they are ready to return to the workforce, they find it more difficult to rejoin because employers, when hiring, tend to prioritize those who are currently employed as they believe those candidates will become productive more quickly because their skills are more up to date, Veronica Villegas, senior program manager for returnships at Amazon told Built In.
But returnship programs can provide a structured environment and support to help people re-enter the workforce after a gap in their careers.
Under a returnship program, which usually lasts three to six months, the returner is often teamed up with a mentor and, in some cases, a work buddy, who frequently checks in with them as a supplement to meetings with their hiring manager. This support team helps a returner not only become familiar with working at that particular organization but also to attune to meeting deadlines, balancing work and life, and adjusting to a workplace’s environment and pace, Gallagher said.
What Are the Benefits of a Returnship?
Advantages for Employers
For companies, returnship programs provide a way to reach experienced, diverse talent who can bring a lot to the table but would benefit from additional support in the beginning.
“Returners have previous professional experience and bring unique and desirable skills with them into experienced roles.”
“We see this program as a way to access new talent pools in a competitive market. Second, this initiative is part of our commitment to increasing the diversity of our workforce and hiring people from all backgrounds,” Villegas said. “Returners have previous professional experience and bring unique and desirable skills with them into experienced roles.”
Amazon launched its 16-week returnship program in 2021. Currently, more than 75 percent of its participants are women, a group hit particularly hard at the start of the pandemic as they disproportionately left the workforce to care for children as daycares and schools closed.
Cybersecurity company Palo Alto Networks also wanted to move the needle and bring back more women into the workforce, said Anand Oswal, senior vice president of products for network security and executive sponsor for the Palo Alto Networks Returnship program, which launched its first cohort of returnees in June 2020 and is currently on its third cohort.
What Returners Gain
For Saghir, the greatest benefit and lesson learned in her returnship program has been how to approach a project, prioritize its tasks and deliver it on time, she said.
Saghir meets with her mentor three times a week, has a biweekly one-on-one meeting with her manager and a monthly one-on-one meeting with her women in technology (WIT) champion, a senior technical program management manager who is guiding Saghir toward her senior role and answering a range of questions on topics ranging from company culture to networking and continued education. Saghir is also working on a live project with a mentor who helps her to navigate the product and the company’s internal tools.
Returners like Saghir also benefit from the safety and support they receive in returnships and are more likely to feel comfortable asking for help and notifying others when they don’t know something, John Dooney, an HR advisor with the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), told Built In.
How Coworkers Win
Coworkers can benefit in several ways when training returners who have past work experience. They may also bring insights and different approaches to problem-solving from their previous employers. And serving as a mentor to a returning employee can be a great way to grow personally and professionally.
“There’s a gap when hiring a returnee but it’s a much narrower gap than when you hire somebody fresh out of school,” said Robert Kelley, a management professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.
He added that returnship programs also show employees they work for an employer that values diversity and is taking time to commit to it.
How to Create a Returnship Program
Returnship programs are paid positions, typically at the same rate other full-time employees receive for a similar position. That’s a significant investment, but it can pay off if you get it right. Here are 13 steps to help set up a returnship program.
Secure an Executive Sponsor
Find an executive willing to sponsor a returnship program and meet with hiring managers and in-house recruiters to ensure they understand and are bought into the purpose of the program. Oswal’s passion to launch such a program at Palo Alto Networks stemmed from his own childhood. At age 5, Oswal’s father passed away and his mother used grit and determination to build her business and support six children.
Identify Hiring Managers
Avoid a casting call, and don’t pressure managers to participate in the program. Instead, identify hiring managers who are interested in the program and want to participate because of personal experiences, or because they had a family member or friend who returned to work after a break.
“So you need managers who need to think about the potential of candidates and not what they’re going to bring right away.”
“A returner is not going to hit the ground running on day one or two or even in week one or two,” said Gallagher. “So you need managers who need to think about the potential of candidates and not what they’re going to bring right away.”
Brief check-in meetings should be held weekly or bi-weekly to discuss how things are progressing with work or special projects, as well as for the individual, with a more formal one-hour meeting every month.
Recruit Mentors and Office Buddies
Identify mentors and office buddies to work with returners. One way to identify a potential mentor and office buddy is to seek out people who like to mentor others or be the go-to person. Mentors and office buddies should expect to meet with returners once a week for about 30 minutes to check in, Gallagher said.
Ensure You Have Jobs for Returners
Not all jobs will be perfect for a returner. Some roles may require working on a project on a tight deadline, for example, which can add a lot of pressure for someone who needs time to get their bearings. Also, make sure you have job openings that will be available to eligible returners once their returnship is completed and be transparent about the availability of these jobs once the program starts, Kelley said.
Advertise Returnship Job Openings
Educate in-house recruiters about the returnship program and how to advertise the program to returners, Gallagher said. Some companies will post job openings that clearly state in the title they are targeting returner candidates, while others may highlight it within the body of the job posting.
Form a Designated Returnship Recruiting Team
Create a dedicated team, if possible, that recruits professionals who are restarting their careers. This provides a more level playing field for all applicants, as returners will be compared with other returners versus comparing returners to candidates already in the workplace, said Villegas.
Allow Recruiters to Offer a Helping Hand
Recruiters can help returner candidates refresh their interviewing skills and assist them in understanding how their competencies fit into a company’s mission statement or top priorities. At Amazon, for example, returnship recruiters help candidates translate their competencies into Amazon’s leadership principles, Villegas added.
Screen Candidates for Potential
Design a lightweight interview process for returnees, taking into account their career break, Villegas said. The goal should be to assess candidates based on their potential rather than grilling them on their resumes. For example, a software engineer who took a break five years ago may not have worked with the latest tools you use, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a deep understanding of code and infrastructure. And their time away may have taught them transferable skills. In Gallagher’s words: “When someone takes a break, they’re not sitting at home watching soap operas all day.”
For each business unit that will have a returner, create a framework that outlines the expectations of the returner and hiring team for the returner program to ensure everyone’s on the same page about what’s expected from the returner’s progress, and the support managers and colleagues are expected to provide in return.
Hire Returners Upon Completion
Some companies like Palo Alto Networks will hire returner candidates as a cohort for full-time permanent positions after the interview process and then provide mentors for as long as they are needed. Other companies like Amazon will offer a four-month returnship program with the possibility of getting hired for a full-time role afterward.
Move Onward and Up
Onboarding helps returners ramp up and demonstrate their skills and competencies. The next step is pairing returners with a dedicated mentor, in addition to their manager and onboarding buddy, who can help the returner work through their project plans and provide coaching and feedback to help them become familiar with a company’s culture, Villegas said.
Provide Progress Updates
Use just-in-time communication to usher returners through program milestones, said Villegas. Carnegie Mellon’s Kelley also advised you should also have an exit strategy for the person who has gone through a returnship program but isn’t hired. Provide clear feedback about their performance and discuss potential outcomes and additional support you can provide if they are not retained after the returnship program ends, such as offering referrals.
Set Concrete Goals
One important step in establishing a returnship program is to set a goal or several goals of what the company hopes to achieve with its program.
Amazon’s goal is to convert a minimum of 80 percent of returners into full-time roles and ultimately hire 1,000 of them in the next several years.
“The greatest challenge we have is finding returners,” Villegas said. “This population tends to hide their career gaps on their resumes, and for this reason, it is challenging to identify them in the labor market or even when they apply for our roles. We encourage returnship-eligible candidates to clearly show their career break so that we can recruit them more easily.”