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Returnship: A Concept Whose Time Has Come

“Rewarding Reads” is a space for articles and personal essays meant to be thought-provoking and informative for human resources professionals, from sharing the “human” perspectives on workplace issues to book reviews of business titles we find inspiring. Have an essay or blog post to share? Contact us at workspan@worldatwork.org.

WorldatWork educates and serves a profession that is rather big on coining new terms and recycling old terms. These terms sometimes morph into words with new meanings. Some of them resurface as disciplines or trends. For example, “total rewards” means something very different to a chief human resources officer than it does to a person who spends an inordinate amount of time in a casino.

“Internship” is a familiar term whose definition is well-known in the business and academic communities. “Returnship,” on the other hand, is a concept evidently coined by Goldman Sachs in 2008, but its heyday may be on the horizon. In fact, if you believe the hype, returnship very well may become an official entry into Webster’s Dictionary, if not the buzzword of 2020.

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Returnship, as defined in this Glassdoor article, is like an internship, only its aim is experienced workers looking to re-enter the workforce. It primarily applies to college-educated individuals who have stepped away from professional life for at least two years to care for a parent or raise a child. It also applies to qualified, nontraditional job prospects who have served in the military or taken an extended absence from work for personal reasons.

The Upside
The benefit of introducing a returnship program to a company’s recruitment practices is to expand the talent pool beyond the usual candidates. It eases someone back into the workforce and may result in a permanent hire after a 10-week to 16-week trial period.

Returnships appear to be gaining steam, with more than 160 companies worldwide investing in such programs, according to Deloitte. The programs have taken flight in a variety of industries and job sectors including engineering, investment banking, health care and marketing.

Deloitte’s Encore program, for example, is accepting applications for the winter 2020 program, with specialist openings such as human capital senior consultant, audit senior, and business tax services manager.

Sylvia Taylor, a working mom and military spouse, participated in the Encore program following a decade-long hiatus during which she raised a family and pursued a master’s degree and professional certification.

‘The goal [of the Encore program] is definitely to provide [returns] exposure to our culture and environment,” Taylor said in the muse article, “What is a Returnship? (Hint: Something You Probably Want to Check Out if You’re Returning to the Workforce).”

A boomerang Deloitte employee and senior consultant, Taylor likened the Encore program to a “boot camp” for the first three months as she ramped back up to speed in an area of her profession that is growing exponentially: auditing information technology.

“I received some initial soft skills training at Deloitte University and then it was on to real-world, on-the-job training, facing clients,” Taylor said. “It’s similar to an 11-week boot camp to get your skills refined and your brain in shape again.”

The Downside
For the right individual, a returnship could present a career-transforming opportunity to learn new skills and sharpen old ones. For others, the whole concept appears to benefit the employer more than the employee. It may even seem exploitative.

Seven years ago, Working Mother magazine published an article, “Why a ‘Returnship’ Is a Bad Idea” by Stacey Hawley, a career advisor. Seven years later, Hawley said that her opinion hasn’t changed on the matter.

“Staying at home a few years to raise a family does not devalue someone’s career or diminish their skillset,” said Hawley, author of Rise to the Top: How Women Leverage Their Professional Persona to Earn More. “Returnships give companies that leverage to ‘try you out’ without actually committing — and being able to terminate you without owing severance. People —generally stay-at-home moms — are worth more and should have more self-confidence in what they contribute.”

Hawley raised concerns that the optics in such a scenario also work against the employee.

“Think about how that looks on a resume — you tried something out and then were let go after a few months because the company decided it wasn’t working out,” Hawley said. “It devalues the employee more than the opportunity is worth. And it hurts your self-confidence more. Women need to be confident in their skills and what they can contribute. They don’t need to do a ‘returnship’ to return to work.”


The Bottom Line
Fear of re-entry into the workforce is a real thing. It’s frustrating to apply for jobs and explain gaps in your employment history. It’s also intimidating to “get back on the horse” and figure out your own skill gaps and how they may hobble your aspirations of returning to a challenging job that requires a high level of technical aptitude.

Most dormant professionals are not given the opportunity — a paid opportunity — to obtain hands-on training, experience, coaching and mentoring to help them rejoin the workforce with confidence. A returnship program seems like a reasonable, good-intentioned attempt by employers to help level the playing field for candidates whose resumes would otherwise be ignored.

Some may consider the concept of a returnship insulting because it puts them on the defense and makes them prove their worth all over again. But it sure seems like a healthy alternative to remaining on the sidelines, not knowing whether you’ll ever be given a second chance to shine.

About the Author

Dan Cafaro is the Editor-in-Chief of Workspan. 


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