Why More Companies Need to Embrace ‘Returnships’ Right Now
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In case you missed it, we’re in the middle of a ‘shecession’ right now. The term was coined by C Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), to describe the disproportionate impact of the economic downturn caused by COVID-19 on women. And what an impact.

Employed in many of the hardest-hit sectors (like education, hospitality, healthcare and service), more than 11 million women have lost their jobs and another 2.65 million have left the workforce since February due to caretaking demands or an inability to find work, according to an IWPR analysis of labor department data. Black and Latina women have been disproportionately affected by these job losses—in April 2020, the unemployment rate for Black and Latina women was 16.4 percent and 20.2 percent, respectively, according to IWPR.

It’s going to take a lot to undo the damage that has brought us back to 1980s levels of women’s participation in the workforce, including mandated paid parental leave, lower costs of childcare and flexible work hours. And another important piece of the puzzle? Normalizing career breaks.

The longer women stay out of the workforce, the harder it is for them to get a job or return to the workforce. In fact, one 2018 study found that job applicants who were stay-at-home parents were half as likely as unemployed ones to get a call back from a potential employer, even with the same qualifications. Enter: returnships.

What Is a Returnship?

A returnship is basically an internship that helps adults who have taken a break from their careers and are now interested in re-entering the workforce. It typically lasts a few weeks to a few months and is paid commensurate with an individual’s level of experience. The returner is often (though not always) hired at the end of the returnship.

The benefits of a returnship are two-fold: Returners gain skills and connections while familiarizing themselves with a company’s culture and environment, and employers are able to evaluate prospective candidates before hiring them full-time. 

“Hiring managers and recruiters often see a gap on a resume, get spooked by it and they move on,” says Janet Van Huysse, Head of People at Cloudflare, a website security company that works with Path Forward, a non-profit that helps people restart their careers after time spent caregiving. “[Returnships] are really great because it gives you relevant and up-to-date experience that’s now at the top of your resume—it gives that level of comfort to hiring managers or recruiters who may need it. And the returners also get the opportunity to try things out.” She notes that many returners are still juggling childcare responsibilities, and so a returnship gives them a few months to see what life would be like for their family if they go back to work, which they often do. (In fact, Cloudflare has extended an offer to over 90 percent of participants who have come through the program since launching it in 2016.)

Why Are We Talking About Returnships Right Now?

One more time for the people in the back: The statistics around women leaving the workforce due to the pandemic are staggering. (In December, women accounted for 100 percent of the net job losses). And even though vaccine rollouts are happening across the country, it will likely be a while before many of these women return back to work. 

“I’m anticipating that the women who are leaving work right now due to COVID are going to take longer career breaks than they are anticipating,” says Carol Fishman Cohen, co-founder of iRelaunch, which works with more than 100 companies to launch and expand in-house return-to-work programs. “That’s what we have found in the past—that women think they’re only going to be out for a year or two and the next thing you know, five years have gone by.” This can happen for a variety of reasons—perhaps taking care of children requires more time than initially anticipated or there may be other unforeseen circumstances like elderly care.

But here’s the thing: If we normalize career breaks and create clear pathways for women to re-enter the workforce, we will all reap the rewards—and that’s isn’t mere hyperbole. Research shows that when more women join the workforce, everyone benefits.

What Companies Can Do Right Now

Many companies (such as Netflix and Cloudflare) offer formal returnship programs, which is a good start. “Companies that have their own return-to-work programs are signaling to their entire workforce—employees who might have just left to go on career breaks, younger employees who are anticipating a future career break and alumni who have been out of the workforce for a number of years and are looking to return—that they recognize that people move through different life phases and there are sometimes situations like COVID-19 that precipitate a career break...they are not only recognizing that but they have created a formal pathway back,” says Cohen.

For those that don’t offer these programs, they should be tracking where their employees are going. “It’s really important for companies to track the women who are leaving because of COVID,” says Cohen. “These women are leaving for reasons unrelated to performance,” she adds. In other words, this is a highly skilled talent pool and so it’s in the company’s best interest to track these high performers when they go on a career break.

What Women Can Do Right Now to Make Their Re-Entry into Work Easier

For women who have left work due to the pandemic, there are a few things you can do right now that will ease your transition back later, says Cohen.

1. Document. “Write down while it’s still fresh in your mind all the milestone moments you remember from your work experience up to this point,” she suggests. This can be accomplishments but also important moments where you learned something. “When you re-enter the workforce, you’re going to need to have anecdotes about your prior work experience and you’ll thank yourself later if you write it down now.”
2. List out your network. And that doesn’t just mean your boss and senior people in your organization—include junior people too, because they might move up and be in a position to offer you a job when you’re ready to return. (This is actually what happened to Cohen after her 11-year career break.)
3. Keep up any certifications or licenses. Don’t let them expire.
4. Find a community. “It helps to be in a community of people who have the same goals of re-launching the careers, especially when they’re in the active relaunch stage of it because it can feel isolating,” advises Cohen. iRelaunch, for example, has a Facebook group with close to 7,000 active members who offer each other support, while Path Forward offers workshops and support to members.

One More Thing...

It’s important to note that returnships are primarily designed for people with a bachelor’s degree or higher. While they can be helpful tools for parents re-entering the workforce, what would it look like if more companies normalized career breaks for employees of all backgrounds and levels? Considering the scope of the shecession, women in all areas of work are going to need a leg up to get back to work when they’re able.

There is, however, one small silver lining: Both Cohen and Van Huysse are optimistic about the future and think that more flexibility and non-traditional career paths are going to become more commonplace—two things that are great for parents.

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