Jumping Back into the Job Market Through a Returnship

By: Nancy Ordman

The poster for the 2015 film, “The Intern,” superimposes the tagline “Experience never gets old” over a picture of actors Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway. De Niro’s 70-year-old character lands a senior citizen internship with Hathaway’s character’s company, About the Fit. One point the movie makes is the value an experienced professional can bring to a company, even if he or she has taken some time away from the workplace. 


Similarly, men and women who have put their careers on pause, often for five or more years, offer potential employers experience and maturity in addition to job knowledge and skills. Re-entry can often be difficult, particularly for women who miss

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eight to 10 years, or more, of work while they focus on raising a family. For some of these aspiring employees, a return internship could be the key that unlocks the door to a new position.


What is a return internship?


Return internships, also called re-entry internship programs and returnships, resemble the structured internships that undergraduates or new graduates often undertake to learn about an industry and to gain some kind of work experience. Programs generally last for two to three months. Goldman Sachs launched its 10-week Returnship® program in 2008, specifically to provide an “on-ramp” back to the world of work for those who had been away for two or more years. Goldman describes a returnship as follows:


In the same way that an internship offers a guided period of exploration, a “returnship” provides individuals with an opportunity to sharpen their skills in a work environment that may have changed significantly since their last experience as an employee. It also gives participants the ability to explore a new area of expertise and learn new skills.


These programs overwhelmingly recruit women – some specify that they are for women only – chiefly because women usually take more time off to raise a family than do men. A 2014 poll by the New York Times, CBS News, and the Kaiser Family Foundation on nonworking adults ages 25 to 54 found that 61 percent of women stay home due to family responsibilities, compared to only 37 percent of nonworking men. Others programs do not have gender limitations; more men are taking advantage of these now. 


Return internship programs are very popular, with hundreds of applications for a small number of slots. Goldman reports receiving hundreds of applications for the 20 to 30 slots available each year. General Motors’ Take-2 career re-entry program accepts about two percent of its applicants, making it more selective than the most selective of elite colleges and universities. And for-profit companies are not the only players in this space.


Who offers these programs?


Several financial services businesses, like Credit Suisse and J.P. Morgan, followed Goldman’s lead and initiated return programs of their own. Technology and engineering companies like IBM, General Motors, and Northrup Grumman are on board and interest in providing STEM programs is growing steadily. Consulting firms like Booz Allen Hamilton and Deloitte and manufacturers like Caterpillar have also jumped on the bandwagon. 


Finding a return internship program, as well as information about rejoining the world of work, is easier thanks to websites like iRelaunch, OnRamp (for lawyers), and Path Forward (for technology-focused employers) that aggregate lists of return internships, both paid and unpaid. These sites also offer a lot of solid advice for career restarters. 


Typically, large and mid-size companies and non-profits publicize and operate formal returnship programs. Those who are looking for a different kind of returnship – in a different industry, or geographical location, for example – can tap the knowledge of their professional networks to track down programs that better suit their needs. 


Or take the advice of CNBC’s Marguerite Ward and create one. Ward quotes guidance from Stacey Delo, chief content officer for the Après website. "Be specific on … what you would like to do while there, and also what skills you would like to work on during your time there. Communicate this in your pitch. Try approaching smaller businesses." 


Who benefits?


Ideally, both the returnees and the companies involved benefit from these programs. Several authors make the point that, since many returnship graduates are women, they are an excellent way to recruit well-qualified women for midlevel positions, particularly in fields that need them. Return internships do not necessarily lead to job offers, but the potential employer can choose from a group of people that has already proven an ability to do the work and fit in with company culture. Return Path started their return internship program specifically to increase female hires; the program’s great success led to its establishment as a separate program – Path Forward – serving multiple tech companies. 


An obvious benefit for returnees is plugging the resume gap while updating skills. If a returnship results in a job offer, great! Although most programs do not lead to a job offer, participants still gain. They can help overcome the confidence gap. They get accustomed to the rhythm of work and start figuring out how to manage a family and a job.  Participants can try out a different industry or a new area in a familiar one without committing to a permanent job. And the temporary colleagues become part of the returnees’ networks. 


How long should a person be out of the labor market before signing up for a returnship? Different writers advocate different numbers. Some say two years is long enough; others think that a gap of less than five years does not present an insuperable obstacle. They recommend sticking to the pursuit of regular jobs. Others advocate absences of five years or more and give examples of returnees who have missed 10 years or more. The answer is most likely “it depends,” given that different industries progress at different speeds.


Caveats

What are the downsides of a return internship? First, landing one can be extremely difficult. What happens if a potential participant is not accepted? For this reason it is critical to have a Plan B, or Plans B through C and D, ready to go. 


And, as mentioned above, not everyone gets hired. For example, hiring rates in financial services range from 50 to 90 percent. If a returnship participant realizes that this field or company is not his or her cup of tea, the time invested might have been better spent elsewhere. 


Some writers question whether a three-month internship actually adds value to a person’s skill set. Lisa Stephens, who left IBM in 1992, landed an “exciting and validating” 20-week internship with Return Path (through their Path Forward program, mentioned above) in 2012. At the end 20 weeks, Stephens got a job offer from Return Path. Would the returnship have jump-started her career if she had not landed the Return Path job? “Would that internship have been enough to have other employers take me seriously as a candidate? I still don’t know the answer to that. After being out for 20 years, would three months be enough?” reflects Stephens.


A corollary question is whether the returnee would be better off going straight to the job market, or finding a different path to updating skills, perhaps through courses at a local college or online. Again, the answer is probably “it depends.” Individual returnees can weigh the pros and cons to make this decision.