Last updated: Return of the returnship: Getting back to work, post-pandemic

Return of the returnship: Getting back to work, post-pandemic


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“Returnships” have been around for years, but the concept is growing as people look for ways to re-enter the workforce as the pandemic wanes.

Returnships are somewhat similar to internships, but designed for mid-career professionals who’ve been unemployed for an extended period and want to restart their careers. They may have left for caregiving duties, relocated, served in the military, been laid off, or quit.

The number of unemployed skyrocketed when COVID hit in 2020, with women losing more jobs than men. Since then, nearly 2 million women have dropped out of the US job market.

Now, returnships are on the rise as people eye rejoining the working world and employers search for talent. Many companies offer return-to-work programs, including Amazon, Goldman Sachs, SAP, Tesla, and Chevron.

What is a returnship?

Returnships are mid-career opportunities for people returning to work after an extended absence.

Also called return-to-work or back-to-work programs, returnships are designed for professionals with a few years of experience. They range in duration from a few weeks to a few months and offer skills development, mentorship, and support.

Goldman Sachs originated and trademarked the term back in 2008.

Companies often select returnship participants as a cohort. Compensation for a returnship varies depending on the program and position, including prorated salaries, stipends, hourly pay, and unpaid.

In the wake of COVID, return-to-work programs are gaining steam, especially for women restarting their careers. Increased demands for caregiving as schools and daycare centers shuttered forced many to put their careers on hold, while others bore the brunt of the loss of in-person jobs.

One study found that two out of three women forced out of work during the pandemic planned to return.

Benefits for employers and workers alike

As people venture back into the workforce, employers are stepping up their return-to-work programs as they struggle to find talent in a tight job market.

According to a recent study by the US Chamber of Commerce, about 3 million fewer Americans participate in the labor force now than in February 2020. And the participation rate of women in the US labor force has dropped to the lowest rates since the 1970s.

Return-to-work programs offer a number of benefits for employers:
  1. Experienced workers with soft skills that are transferable
  2. Increased diversity
  3. Efficient way to assess a candidate for full-time positions

For job seekers, returnships overcome the stigma that, at least in the past, often was associated with being unemployed for an extended time. Other benefits include:

  1. Skills building
  2. Networking and mentorship opportunities
  3. May lead to full-time permanent employment

Examples of return-to-work programs

The growing number of companies offer some form of returnship opportunities. A recent search or the term on showed 958 results.

Amazon grabbed headlines last year (before its recent layoffs made news) when it announced plans to hire 1,000 people through its expanded returnship program. Participants work on initial 16-week projects in a range of areas, including finance, consumer payments and search. The program includes child and elder care assistance.

“We understand that life happens and sometimes an event affects career plans,” Beth Galetti, senior VP of People eXperience and Technology at Amazon, said when the company unveiled the program.

“While people may need to drop from the workforce to help care for children or aging parents, we believe that this should not penalize their careers,” she said.

While return-to-work programs aren’t restricted to women, many participants are women. For example, Schneider Electric Global’s first returnship program, launched earlier this year with eight women. Schneider’s returnship and overall HR efforts aim to ease the burden of caregiving, which often falls more heavily on women.

Deloitte’s Encore program lists 15 opportunities available next spring, including software engineering, cloud consultant, and project management. Participants receive training, mentorship and professional growth while getting hands-on experience.

SAP’s program is a 20-week paid program for mid-career professionals with 5+ years’ work experience. The program includes remote and hybrid roles across development, sales, marketing, and features workshops, coaching and a dedicated mentor to ease the transition back to the workforce.

The future of work after COVID

Returnships are one of the workplace trends taking off, post-pandemic.

Remote and hybrid work is here to stay and companies that don’t provide flexibility are at a disadvantage in employee recruitment and retainment.

We’re also seeing a rise in contingent workers as companies fill in gaps caused by the talent crunch. In 2021, Staffing Industry Analysts (SIA) reported that there were 52 million contingent workers in the U.S. representing 35% of all workers.

A Gartner study found that 32% of organizations replaced full-time workers with contingent workers to save money and for workforce flexibility.

As businesses and employees both continue to adjust to new ways of working after COVID, returnships likely will remain a growing option.

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