In 2008, Hagit Katzenelson left her job at a tech startup to care for her three small children. Four years later, she was revved up and ready to return. Armed with an electrical engineering degree, an MBA, and 14 years of previous work experience, she refreshed her skills with consulting projects and by developing a mobile gift-giving app on her own. Yet when she applied for product jobs, she hit a wall… again and again, for five full years. Prospective employers either questioned her qualifications and commitment or ignored her altogether. “I’ve had a lot of really well-meaning people tell me to quit looking,” she told me. They’d say, “Come on, you’re banging your head against a closed door.’”
When it comes to working families, employers and politicians tend to focus on new mothers and fathers. Yet parents who leave the workforce when their kids are young but later want to reenter it might be corporate America’s greatest untapped resource. With unemployment rates near historic lows and companies bemoaning labor shortages, it’s time to tap into this talent pool. For the past year, I’ve worked with organizations trying to do just that. I have also interviewed scores of executives about the strategies they’re using to create more on-ramps. Here are five of the most promising:
Create “returnships.” Karen Hooper, an aerospace engineer, quit her job after her twin sons were born in 1996. By the time they entered high school, she was eager to return to full-time work. But it was only in 2017, a decade after she started looking, that she was hired. What finally made a difference was a “returnship” program with United Technologies. “It wasn’t a coffee-type internship. It was a real job,” Hooper says. “It started out immediately training [me in] something that would lead to a permanent position.”
Goldman Sachs debuted one of the first returnship programs in 2008, and there are now at least 50 similar ones across the United States, 38 of which were launched in just the past two years, according to iRelaunch, a career re-entry firm. Many more operate abroad. These programs, structured like internships, are growing at an explosive rate. Open to men and women who have taken a career break of at least two years, they generally last from eight weeks to six months. Returnees are able to refresh their skills and organizations can evaluate them as potential employees. Then everyone can gauge whether there is a good long-term fit. If not, the returnee at least has a more updated resume.
Along with United Technologies, about two dozen companies including IBM, Apple, and Johnson & Johnson have built returnship programs specializing in tech jobs, with the help of the Society of Women Engineers and iRelaunch. Nearly 400 professionals have participated in these programs, and 85% have been hired into permanent jobs, says iRelaunch cofounder Carol Fishman Cohen. That group includes Hooper, who was hired full time as a United Technologies project engineer following her returnship. She credits the program with giving her the skills and network to rebuild her career. She likened re-entry to riding a more modern bike instead of “the old banana-seat” one she rode years ago: “The gears have changed and the frame has changed, but I still know how to ride.”
Hire returnees into permanent positions, with support. Some companies skip the returnship phase and go straight to direct hiring with new programs that offer coaching and mentoring designed specifically for returnees. UBS, for example, morphed the returnship program it started in the U.S. in 2016 into a direct hire program last year – a sensible move since it was already hiring 92% of participants into permanent jobs. Its program includes an assigned “buddy” and an onboarding orientation program before the first day of work to ease re-entry.
Ford also started with a returnship program in 2017 but transformed it into a direct-hire program this year, offering participants skills training, an assigned mentor, and a “buddy” to help navigate office culture. A dozen people have gone through the program, and they range from a mom out of the workforce for 20 years to a male military veteran who took a break to go college. “There’s no reason why that number couldn’t be hundreds over time,” says Julie Lodge-Jarrett, the automaker’s chief talent officer. After all, the company hires as many as 3,000 employees a year and a tight labor market has forced it to look beyond their traditional hires.
Host events to welcome candidates. Several companies have set up workshops to meet and evaluate potential returnees. Bloomberg offers a “Returner Circle” program, a day-long event for a couple of dozen pre-approved applicants that combines career information, coaching, and exploratory interviews. Since 2016, it has hosted workshops in New York, Tokyo, and London and hired mid- to senior-level employees in areas including sales, data analysis, and research. Similarly, Bank of America hosts “Returning Talent” workshops geared to professionals who want to come back to work, offering advice on interview skills and career searches, along with the opportunity to meet some of the bank’s recruiters. “People who have been out of work for a variety of reasons – including to raise a child, care for a loved one, support a military spouse, etc – represent a tremendous pool of untapped talent,” says Jenise Tate, the head of women’s strategic initiatives for the global talent acquisition team at Bank of America.
Offer more than cash. Many parents returning to the workforce are still trying to balance family and career and interested in part-time or flexible work. Offering health insurance, retirement accounts, and other benefits to these recruits can make a big difference. A Glassdoor survey found that four out of five people would rather have benefits than a pay increase, with health insurance topping the list. And yet just 25% of part-timers have access to that number-one perk through their companies. Some employers are starting to step up on this front; Johnson & Johnson, Costco, JP Morgan Chase and Boston Consulting Group (BCG) are among those now offering health insurance and other benefits to some part-time workers. Or consider flexible work arrangements. BCG also works on a project-by-project basis with past consultants, allowing the firm to maintain relationships with former colleagues. “These are often, but not limited to, women who have decided to leave the full- time workforce but still want to have a chance to stay active [just] more on a basis that meets their needs,” says Matt Krentz, a senior partner and managing director. “A number of them end up returning to a full-time role.”
Connect with college programs. In recent years, college placement centers, once set up for graduating seniors and students seeking internships, have expanded their reach to alumni. University of Michigan, Bucknell, and Colorado State University are among the many that promote career counseling for alums at any stage of life. Some colleges retooled their career placement efforts after the 2008 financial crisis, in order to help alums whose jobs had disappeared. When the University of Chicago School of Law offered a day of career counseling in 2009, the program filled up in 24 hours.
At American University, a counselor is assigned specifically to alumni. Among other services, the university offers three free advisory sessions and invites past graduates to its job fairs. Employers are more amenable to returnees than they once were, notes Matthew Pascocello, who has spent more than two decades as director of alumni professional development at American’s Washington School of Law. “It’s no longer a scarlet letter to, heaven forbid, take time off to raise a family,” he says.
While an encouraging start, these programs aren’t a cure-all. They capture only a small percentage of the millions of people who are trying to reenter the job market, and returning workers may still find they are paid less than coworkers or set back levels below their previous positions. But there are signs that these programs will have to get better, fast, because a new and much larger wave of women – and men – will be taking time off from their careers soon: 84% of millennials of both genders say they expect to take a “significant” break at some point in their careers for childcare or other reasons. Organizations that are building on-ramps for the returnees today will be the ones best poised to take advantage of all those coming in the future.
And in some cases, they might just find their future leaders, as UBS did when they hired Karen Sunderam. A New Jersey mom of four kids under nine, she joined the bank’s returnship program in the fall of 2017 and has stayed on at the firm as an executive director, one level higher than the job she left at Morgan Stanley in 2015. “I never thought I would stay at home forever,” she says, but she felt comfortable taking a two-and-a-half year break because she knew about the on-ramp programs.
Hagit Katzenelson landed in Walmart’s first class of 32 returnship participants this past September after attending an event hosted by Path Forward, a non-profit that works with companies including Netflix, SAP, and Walmart to help develop returnship programs. For her, the event brought five years of job hunting to a close. She was hired immediately afterward as a senior product manager in the company’s Sunnyvale office. “It was an opportunity to go and prove myself,” she says. She’s delighted to be back at work. But she knows so many others are still banging their heads against closed doors. “Five hundred women were at this session, all looking to come back after a career break. It was heartbreaking,” she says. “There’s this industry that says, ‘We don’t have enough talent,’ and there’s this talent that is just waiting to get back to work.”
Joanne Lipman is the author of “That’s What She Said: What Men and Women Need to Know About Working Together” (William Morrow). She is former chief content officer of Gannett and editor in chief of its USA Today and the USA Today Network, comprising the flagship title plus 109 local newspapers.
Originally published on HBR.org
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