There’s a common form of job discrimination that isn’t illegal. Job-seekers returning to the workforce after putting their careers on pause complain about it all the time. It’s discrimination against them by employers skeptical about whether their knowledge and skills required for an open position are up to date. While it’s disconcerting to job-seekers, it’s understandable for employers. After all, it’s a rational concern.
But, for some employers, there’s a middle ground between rolling the dice, and just saying ‘no’ to applicants trying to re-enter the labor force after being on the sidelines. The “returnship” concept is designed to bridge the gap. It’s recently gained traction in the financial services, tech and consulting sectors — and it may be valuable in other industries, too.
Typically, these programs target parents — both men and women — who took time off to raise children. They also might help people who took leave to care for convalescent loved ones.
In a nutshell, a returnship is an internship for someone re-entering the workforce who shows potential for ultimately receiving a full-time job. “Using a returnship program as a screening tool lets employers skim the top talent from this pool and then make ultimate hiring decisions on the basis of meaningful work samples,” according to Carol Fishman Cohen, the founder of a re-entry firm known as iRelaunch.
But it’s not merely a trial run based on skills they developed years ago. People who are given returnships receive fresh training, guidance and other learning opportunities to bring them up to speed on a job, or various jobs, within the sponsoring organization.
Returnships can be general purpose in nature, giving participants a broad orientation applicable to a variety of kinds of jobs. Or they can be narrowly targeted, focusing on updating and building up a specific set of skills.
Like a traditional internship, a typical returnship program will only last a few months or a year, with no commitment to hire program participants when the program ends. Sixteen weeks is a common duration period.
Compensation practices vary. Trial and error may be the only way you can learn what you need to pay promising candidates to apply for a returnship program. Keep in mind, though, that strong returnship candidates will have had relatively high-paying jobs prior to their hiatus from the workforce. That could mean they’ll turn their noses up at what strikes them as a low-ball offer.
A key difference between a returnship and hiring someone merely on a trial basis is that you’re not raising false hopes of a job offer when the program ends. Plus, you’re providing enough training and work experience to make the returnship attractive to draw a strong pool of applicants for slots in the program.
Back in 2005 the economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett used the term “on-ramp” to describe what employers could construct for people trying to get themselves back into responsible jobs, years after exiting via an off-ramp. Since then, the concept has matured. Several consulting firms have sprung up to help companies create their own returnship programs. Examples include:
- Women Back to Work, and
“We assist organizations in designing, introducing, implementing and expanding return to work internship programs, an essential initiative for companies committed to reintegrating experienced professionals into their organizations,” explains iRelaunch.
Many Happy Returns
Before you launch a returnship program consult with a team of advisors who are knowledgeable about key areas for your industry and business in general. The more high-level support you get, the better your chances of operating a successful program with many happy returns.
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