‘Returnship’ programs can drive diversity and engagement

HR pros can use returnship programs to create more diverse, engaged workforces.
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· 5 min read

As we’re reminded after the holidays, returning to work following a break is tough.

Now, imagine if that break went on for months or even years. That’s why employers including Amazon, Intuit, Meta, Accenture, and NBCUniversal have been offering “returnships.” Since emerging on the scene, these temporary jobs (think, internships for mid-career professionals) have helped those reentering the workforce after an extended period of time to obtain and successfully transition into full-time roles.

The case for returnships. Candidates with résumé gaps may be filtered out of the hiring process by the ATS that review applications, or be viewed less than favorably by recruiters or hiring managers, who may see them as being out of touch with industry trends. Even the US Labor Department’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has this issue on its radar.

Returnship programs aim to address these barriers by grouping together similarly situated workers, acknowledging their skill sets, and helping them adapt them for work in the world today, according to business leaders who spoke with HR Brew.

Amazon, for example, has a returnship open to anyone who has been out of the workforce for at least a year. At the conclusion of the 16-week program, over 90% of participants are offered full-time jobs, according to Veronica Villegas, talent acquisition leader at Amazon who runs returnships, per an email to HR Brew from communications representative Andy Slaughter.

Intuit, meanwhile, has a 16-week returnship geared toward technologists. Most participants are former software developers, according to Tracy Stone, Intuit’s director of DE&I in tech, and mentorship is part of the program.

“It’s challenging to reenter the workforce,” Stone told us, “especially in tech, where everything moves very quickly. This program enables them the opportunity to upskill, refresh their skills, and then that supportive sort of on-ramp to get back into a tech career.”

A boon for diversity. Returnship programs aren’t just helpful to people struggling to find a good job. They were initially meant to help employers drive gender diversity.

The first returnship programs were specifically aimed at supporting mid-career women taking breaks for childcare, in part because women are more likely than men to take time off work to care for children or other family members. Lehman Brothers, UBS, Goldman Sachs and Sara Lee are believed to have been among the first companies to offer them. At Intuit, Stone credits returnships for helping the company reach its goal of 33% female representation in technical roles.

Returnships can also help employers diversify their recruiting pipelines to include those from underrepresented backgrounds. As Slaughter told HR Brew on behalf of Villegas, participants in Amazon’s program include “those who decide to ‘unretire,’ women, and people with disabilities.”

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Stone added that workers who participate in returnship programs are often more engaged, because they are appreciative of the company for giving them a foot in the door and for the training and resources required to become a full-time employee. They also can serve as an “extended working interview,” allowing employers to get to know and observe candidates on the job before extending full-time offers.

How HR can make it happen. Starting a returnship can be tough. Because the programs are relatively new, workers may have less familiarity with them and may not know to search for them.

HR pros can list returnships on their companies’ job boards, just as they might any other open position. They may also want to get the word out via returnship-specific job boards, such as Stone said many Intuit returnship participants learned about the program from current employees.

She suggested that HR pros start with a pilot program for one group of employees, based on their company’s needs. For Intuit, it was engineers and programmers. For another company, it might be sales, marketing, or even HR.

In an email from Slaughter, Stephen Peralta, a front end engineer at Amazon who participated in the company’s returnship program, said he “would also encourage these companies to spend some time coming up with reasonable projects for the returner where it’s large enough to showcase their skills but not so large that the returner feels overwhelmed and can’t present an impressive result.” Organizations such as iRelaunch and Path Forward offer templates and outsourced returnship programs that people pros may find useful.

HR teams can implement these programs without much difficulty, Stone added, as long as they challenge themselves to think differently about recruiting and are open to feedback from employees and participants.

“We have an eye towards the candidate experience, helping the teams…[by asking] ‘What can we build in terms of the technical training and mentorship, what would enable success?’” she said. “That’s the most important thing, to just continue to be open and hear feedback and listen along the way.”—AK

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Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.