5-second summary
  • Career breaks have become more common, and normalized, than ever before.
  • A tight labor market means companies need to attract these people, and returnships are a way to do that.
  • The internship-like programs use training, mentoring, and networking to help returning professionals succeed.

We’re in the midst of a historic labor shortage, and women account for many of our missing workers. After losing their jobs or leaving the workforce due to caregiving responsibilities, nearly two million still haven’t come back

For employers, that’s a lot of talent lost, and a missed chance to build diverse, equitable teams. To adapt, they need to do more to find and keep people – and one way is to seek out those missing workers and actively welcome them back to the workforce. 

That means, if you’re ready to return to the workplace after a hiatus, now is as good a time as any. With so many people taking career breaks, they’re not the dealbreaker they once were. Companies need your skills and experience, just as much as you need an opportunity. 

That’s the idea behind returnships: programs that help companies recruit, train, and hire professionals who’ve left the workforce but are ready to start their careers up again.

Returning workers, gainful employment 

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Returnships aren’t new, but in the current landscape, they’re becoming more popular than ever; over a third of Fortune 50 companies now offer them. 

“Most career reentry program participants are women, returning to work after career breaks for childcare reasons,” says Carol Fishman Cohen, co-founder of career re-entry consulting company iRelaunch. “But there are men in that category also, and women and men who take breaks for reasons that have nothing to do with childcare.”

Most returnship participants get hired

Unlike internships, returnships are less about gaining experience, and more about gainful employment. The majority of participants in these programs do land a job – Path Forward, a nonprofit servicing returning workers, shares that 80% of their program participants so far have been hired, a rate that’s in line with the industry average.  

Cognizant, a professional services company, reports that they’ve trained 110 returners, and hired “the vast majority.” Amazon’s program, which we’ll cover in detail below, aims to hire over 90% of participants.

But transitioning out of a career break isn’t easy. There will be new skills, and maybe even entire new roles, to get comfortable with – and beyond the technical challenges, returning to work can be emotional and intimidating.

What to expect from a returnship  

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Like internships, returnships are a structured way for participants to learn new skills, gain experience, and get comfortable in the workplace. But unlike some internships, returnships are fully paid, and some offer benefits like health plans and childcare. 

The programs typically include structured training and upskilling, as well as mentoring, coaching, and networking. They’re sometimes project-based, meaning that participants own one project they’ll work on throughout the program. At the program’s completion, evaluating the project will help determine whether they get a job offer.  

Returnships are also often cohort-based, meaning a group of participants enters the program together. While this can provide returning workers with valuable support and networking, it also lacks the flexibility that both workers and managers often need.

Direct Hire: a new way to return to work

Returnships are just one way to structure a return-to-work program. Another option is the direct hire model, which is more like starting a regular job. 

Participants are full-time employees from the start, but during the application process and their first few weeks, they’re provided with returnship-style support and training.

Ford, Boeing, and P+G have all shifted their returnship programs to this model, simply because they were hiring so many participants. Cohen believes this model will become even more popular, as companies realize the value of this undertapped talent pool. 

“The returnship was based on the idea that it was risky to hire a person coming off of a career break,” she says. “But with the conversion rates so high, and getting higher, managers are asking why that returnship is even required.”

Benefits of Returnships 

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There are many reasons for companies to seek out returning workers. Here are a few of the most compelling. 

Benefits to employers

  • Prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s been shown to improve performance and profitability. 
  • 1.8 million women haven’t returned to the labor market since the beginning of the pandemic. Returnships help employers access some of those qualified, experienced workers.
  • Returning workers are often even more motivated and dedicated, because this isn’t just another job – it’s the job that got them back into the workforce, and kicked off a new chapter of their life. 

Benefits to professionals

  • After a substantial break, it can be difficult to get rehired – Amazon’s research has found that returning professionals tend to stand only a 10% chance of getting hired against someone who hasn’t taken time off. Returnships help mitigate that inequality. 
  • Learning, coaching, and support opportunities help ensure professionals are coming back to fulfilling work – not just any work they can find. 
  • Thanks to their high conversion rate, returnships are a more direct path to employment than other skill-building options like volunteering or going back to school. 

Amazon: a historic commitment to returning workers 

In 2021, Amazon made headlines when it announced its new returnship program – and along with it, a commitment to hire 1,000 returning workers. It was, by far, the largest commitment ever made of its kind. 

“When we designed our returnship program, we worked backward, from the candidates as our customer,” said program founder Alex Mooney in a podcast interview

The returnship takes a flexible, individualized approach. Childcare and relocation assistance is offered, the application process includes interview prep and career coaching. Amazon also recognizes that many applicants do need to work to stay financially afloat during their break, such as by driving for Uber, and these stopgap gigs won’t disqualify them.

“Our goal is to get these professionals back to the career they had before they hit pause,” explained Mooney. “We’re helping people think, ‘what were you doing before you paused your career?’”  

Amazon’s program is still in its relative infancy, and needs more time to reach its ambitious goal. But Mooney is clear about the returnship’s intent – hiring at least 90% of participants, and making Amazon a great place to restart their careers.

Goldman Sachs: the first returnship pivots post-COVID 19

Goldman Sachs’s returnship is the OG return-to-work program. Founded in 2008, it was the first of its kind, and five years later launched a sister program in India. 

In 2021, the firm reimagined their program to respond to post-pandemic labor market disruption. Today, it’s a direct-hire model, beginning with a six-month, full-time paid fellowship. “Relaunchers were hired as employees right from the start, but still benefited from some programming from the traditional Returnship program,” explains Cohen. 

When a company has hired returning workers for this long, something special happens.  “The longer a program runs, the more relaunchers are inside the organization,” Cohen explains. “Earlier program participants have been at the organization long enough to move up into more senior roles, and hire new relaunchers to work for them.” 

This means there’s a strong network of people within the organization who’ve experienced taking a career break, then returning to work, and they can support each other. 

Tips for returning to work 

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Interested in a return-to-work program to ease your way back into the workforce? You’ve got plenty of options. 

As you seek out the right opportunity, here are some tips from the experts. 

Check out returnship partners

To find opportunities, familiarize yourself with organizations that are helping companies administer these programs. The Mom Project, Women Back to Work, and Cohen’s own iRelaunch all offer opportunities and job boards to browse. 

Own your career break

“Make it easy for the recruiter to understand that you’ve paused your career,” Mooney suggested. “Often, the age-old advice to show you’re still relevant ends up in resumes being masked. That makes it difficult for our recruiters to see who paused their career or is underemployed.”

Don’t be afraid to call out a career break or caregiving break on your CV. List any relevant skills you gained during that time, like volunteer work or community organizing. 

Stay confident

Times have changed, and a career break is nothing to apologize for. Your past work experience is valuable, and so are the skills you might have gained during your time away. Time management, interpersonal skills, and project planning are all skills required to run a household, care for a relative, or even travel the world! 

The truth is in the numbers. Companies wouldn’t be hiring over 80% of returnship participants if they weren’t dedicated, talented, and valuable additions to their team.

Begin again: how a returnship could help you relaunch your career