From returnships to direct hires, the programs that get people back to work

As people recalibrate their careers, return-to-work programs play a quiet but critical role in rebuilding a healthy and productive workforce.

Ida Holden wasn’t planning to return to the corporate world. The former sales manager had taken a 16-year career break to raise her son.

Ida Holden
Ida Holden, a Career ReStart Returnship Program participant

“I never thought I’d stop working in the corporate world,” Holden says. “But after we had our child, I never really saw myself going back. Then I found the ReStart program and it looked like the perfect fit.”

Holden is one of the most recent participants in Dell Technologies’ Career ReStart Returnship Program, a 16-week paid “returnship” that provides training and support to those transitioning back into the workforce. The program functions much like an internship—though geared toward experienced professionals rather than students or graduates—giving candidates a structured work placement As well as training, Holden and her cohort are paired with mentors, and offered regular workshops and networking events. “Those have been fantastic,” Holden says. “They bring in someone who has been through a returnship who can speak to their experience. You also get to network with people from different companies that are going through the same process.”

Returning to work after a career break can be a daunting prospect for the returner, as well as employers. But as more people recalibrate their careers, return-to-work programs are playing a quiet but critical role in rebuilding a healthy and productive workforce.

Return-to-work programs 101

In the early 2000s, Lehman Brothers and UBS were among the first financial institutions to create job opportunities specifically for those who had previously left the sector. Other industries followed suit.

“There are about 200 companies that have ever run return-to-work programs in the U.S.,” says Christine Winston, vice president of program development at the nonprofit Path Forward, which works with companies, including Dell, on building successful reentry programs. “These are hiring programs,” she says. “They require a manager to set aside headcount and eventually hire the individual. The idea for a manager to take what is perceived as a risk, at least the first time they do this, is really the biggest barrier to entry,” Winston says.

“You have a vast market of candidates out there who are ready to come back to work, but they’re facing many challenges,” adds Laura Carver, talent acquisition consultant at Dell Technologies. “People are overlooking their resumes, not giving them a chance or feeling like they don’t have the right skill set. At Dell, we saw that a lot of folks that had been out of the workforce for a longer period of time were more comfortable with the idea of a returnship. They wanted coached and managed onboarding, and the opportunity to slowly ramp up into a position.”

Holden, who is on the returnship track, says its soft landing was appealing to her. She’d been working part-time for a local nonprofit for a number of years, a role she enjoyed and felt comfortable in. “It was a chance that I was taking, and it was a chance that Dell was taking whether I was going to be the right fit for that position,” Holden says. “Anybody coming into it just needs to be honest with themselves. Are you excited to get to work and do your job? Do you like the people that you work with? Do you like the culture of the company? All those were a yes for me.”

Overcoming barriers for returners

Many parents looking to return to work face what Winston calls a “double bias.” They are at a disadvantage first because of the gap on their resume and then for the reason they took the time off—caregiving.

Woman Returning to Work
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

2018 study published in the American Sociological Review found that job applicants who had been out of work to care for children fared worse in terms of hiring prospects compared to otherwise equivalent applicants who were unemployed because of a job loss. “After being pushed out, [mothers] are kept out and have reduced job opportunities when attempting to regain employment,” the study’s author, Katherine Weisshaar, wrote in the paper.

But the myths surrounding this sector of the working population don’t always play out. In a 2015 Ted talk about getting back to work after a career break, CEO Carol Fishman Cohen described returners as a “gem of the workforce.” “We’re in a more settled time of life,” said Fishman Cohen, who founded the career reentry resource iRelaunch after her own 11-year career break. “We have great work experience. We have a more mature perspective. We’re not trying to find ourselves at an employer’s expense. Plus, we have an energy, an enthusiasm about returning to work precisely because we’ve been away from it for a while.”

Carver says that one of the biggest successes is hearing from managers whose mindsets have shifted after taking part in the program. “We’ve had more and more managers jump on board with the idea that this talent pool is really amazing,” she says.

Returnships are the future of work

Holden says a big factor in deciding to go back to work was that she could do so from home. “I was very upfront about my family situation,” she says. “I still do pick up and drop off for school, and because the job is remote, it’s allowed me that flexibility.”

If we are to put the full force of women’s capabilities to work in our economies, we need to not just find reasons to push them out of the workforce, but rather find them on ramps back in.

—Christine Winston, vice president of program development at Path Forward

This need for flexibility is what most people want when reentering the workforce. “The pandemic allowed us to expand that flex option and offer even more positions to folks in a remote capacity,” Carver says.

Winston from Path Forward emphasizes that there are many reasons people take breaks from work. Parenting is one, as is caring for an elderly relative or joining the military. By creating pathways for these individuals to get back into work, companies can build organizations built on diversity of talent.

“The intersection of caregiving and work disproportionately impacts women’s careers,” Winston acknowledges. “If we are to put the full force of women’s capabilities to work in our economies, we need to not just find reasons to push them out of the workforce, but rather find them on ramps back in.”

Holden is currently coming to the end of her returnship and recently found out that she’s been offered a permanent position as a business systems analyst. “The way I look at this program is on-the-job training, but with all that additional support to help me as I transition,” Holden says. “It’s been fabulous.”

Lead photo courtesy of Ryoji Iwata/Unsplash