Unlocking the Potential of Returnship Programs in Tech and Engineering


June 26, 2024


180 Engineering

As employers seek innovative ways to achieve DEI goals, bridge the skills gap, and address extremely low unemployment rates in the tech and engineering sectors, the concept of returnships is gaining momentum. Developed by Goldman Sachs in 2008, returnships are a way for employers to upskill workers who have been absent from the workforce for extended periods.

Modeled after internships, returnships are paid training opportunities targeted to mid-career professionals who are attempting to re-enter the workforce. According to Tami Forman, the founder and chief executive of Path Forward, a non-profit that helps employers develop returnships, the programs are extremely effective, with a conversion rate of 80%. Yet, fewer than 100 employers – and only one-third of Fortune 100 companies – run returnships in the United States each year.

With a proven track record and an innovative way to tap into the rich hidden talent pool, returnships have much to offer. If your company doesn’t already offer a returnship program, it may be time to consider doing so.

The Problem With Employment Gaps

Extended gaps in employment can make it difficult for people to re-enter the workforce. ATS programs often screen out resumes with unexplained gaps. Hiring managers might also screen out a candidate with a career gap, assuming that either the person hasn’t been a desirable hire by others or that their skills are out of date. Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza points out in a blog piece that, “Once you get past the two-year mark in the gap, you’re about half as likely to get a first-round screen for your application.”

Women commonly have employment gaps due to childcare and caregiving responsibilities. However, there are other reasons why job candidates may have extended gaps including educational upgrading, military service, incarceration, and disability or chronic illness.

Post-pandemic, it has become even more likely that people will have employment gaps. During the pandemic, unemployment rose to unprecedented levels as people were laid off or left their jobs in search of a better work/life balance. Further, retirement numbers surged as people chose to retire early. Statistics show that many of those retirees are “unretiring” – returning to the job market to offset rising costs, seek out socialization opportunities, and/or pursue dreams and passions.

While rapidly shifting technology and overall changes in the workplace may indeed mean that some candidates with employment gaps have out-of-date skills, this is a richly skilled and wide talent pool. A study found that 68% of Americans have an employment gap, which may result in significant numbers of viable candidates being screened out by your ATS.

What Is A Returnship Program?

Targeted towards experienced professionals, returnship programs are offered by companies to provide upskilling, support, mentoring, and – ultimately – a path towards permanent full-time employment. In most cases, the programs are for those who have been out of the workforce for two years or longer.

While returnships were modeled after internships, returnships are typically full-time paid opportunities. In most cases, returnships are offered on a contract-to-hire basis, with participants treated as contractors until they complete the program and are extended an offer of full employment. However, some returnship programs are direct-hire, with participants hired as full employees who begin their positions with an immersive returnship program.

Typically, companies set criteria that candidates must meet to be considered for the programs. While those criteria can vary between companies, most require the following:

  • Relevant employment for a minimum number of years;
  • A minimum length of an employment gap; and
  • An established skill set relevant to employment offered via the returnship.

As well, some returnship programs are designed with DEI goals in mind, and may specifically seek out applicants of certain demographics.

How Are Returnships Structured?

As for any job, candidates for a returnship typically go through a regular hiring process, starting with an application and continuing through with interviews and background checks.

Once accepted to a returnship program, participants usually start with an orientation to the company and a boot-camp style skills training. After this initial period, participants begin working on projects relevant to the role they seek to fill in the company at the end of the program. Those projects increase in complexity over time, allowing participants to build their confidence along with their hard and soft skill sets.

Companies usually recruit small cohorts of returners to go through their programs at the same time. This dedicated training time is cost-effective for companies and provides those in the program with peer support and a sense of community.

A returnship may last anywhere from 4-26 weeks, though 12-16 weeks is the most common duration.

The Benefits Of Returnship Programs

While it’s clear that returnship programs benefit workers, there are several benefits for employers too.

First and most importantly, returnships offer access to a vast and valuable talent pool that may otherwise be screened out. But beyond that, returnships also offer employers:

  • Talented and experienced workers who have the knowledge and skills to contribute from day one;
  • The chance to thoroughly assess the skills and performance of contract hires before making an offer of employment;
  • A way to achieve DEI objectives, since many of those who qualify for returnships are members of marginalized groups;
  • A way to upskill workers to fill roles that have shifted due to technology changes;
  • A chance to foster engagement, loyalty, and retention by showing that they care about the people they hire; and
  • A positive impact on their brands, since companies that support returnships are viewed as inclusive and supportive – which, tangentially, can help attract top talent through traditional recruitment.

How To Launch A Returnship Program

All successful companies offer onboarding, orientation, training, mentorship, and feedback to new employees. These are also the pillars of a successful returnship program. But returnships do require a unique approach. While you already have the building blocks in place for a successful returnship program, it’s important to manipulate those blocks to build a program that meets the needs of both candidates and employers.

Define Success And Set Clear Objectives

The best place to start creating a returnship program is to clarify why you are building it and define what you hope to achieve. These are some things to consider as you start creating your company’s program:

  • What is the ideal outcome of your program?
  • What milestones or goals do participants need to reach to be successful?
  • How long will it take the average participant to achieve your ideal outcome?
  • What type of projects will participants engage in as they work to achieve success?
  • Who in your organization will work with participants on their projects?
  • How will your pay structure be organized? Will all participants receive the same pay or will the rate differ based on the experience and skills they bring and the roles that they will transition into?
  • What metrics will you use to evaluate your program, beyond the completion rate?

Review Your Onboarding And Training Procedures

It’s important to develop and provide a robust onboarding and training process that will meet the needs of your participants. While an overall focus may be on upskilling participants to be able to work in hard-to-fill roles, other aspects of work life should be considered.

For instance, some participants may be unfamiliar with recent advances in workplace tech, including Zoom and Slack. Others may need to hone soft skills that are relatively new to the workplace, such as the ability to stay on task in hybrid work environments. Further, some may have not kept up with industry shifts and may need to review pertinent literature or attend relevant industry events.

As you build your program, tailor your modules to address the needs of your participants and stay open to the need to pivot training if learning gaps are identified.

Get Internal Buy-In To Ensure Mentorship And Support

Everyone in your organization has a role in the success of your returnship program.

Bring your hiring managers on board early on and speak with them to identify the team members who are best positioned to provide mentorship, support, and feedback to participants. As Jessica Cieslinski points out in a comprehensive blog post about building returnships:

… one-on-one mentorship and coaching opportunities … help participants navigate the workplace, build relationships, and develop their skills. This also helps them to set goals and track their progress throughout the program.

Ensure Meaningful Work

A critical component of a successful returnship program is meaningful work. Participants should be given work that aligns with their skills and interests and that is relevant to the roles they will step into upon successful completion of the program. Meaningful work will increase engagement and retention and help build confidence.

Consider Flexible Work Arrangements

Many people with significant employment gaps have been out of the workforce specifically because they needed to be at home due to disability, chronic illness, or caregiver responsibilities, for example. Flexible work arrangements can attract participants who remain unable to return to the office full-time.

For those who may be able to transition to full-time in-office work, flexible work arrangements for the duration of the program allow them the emotional space needed to transition back to the workplace after an extended absence.

Provide Regular Feedback And Establish Milestones for Success

Regular feedback and a way to evaluate success as the program progresses are critical. As pointed out in a terrific blog post at InStride:

There should be clear criteria for individual progression and success within the program. This can include outlining specific skills and competencies that need to be developed or training milestones that should be achieved. It’s also important to strategize and document what qualifies a returnship program participant to be considered for a full-time offer.

Provide A Clear Pathway To Full-Time Employment

The end goal of a returnship program should be full-time employment. To achieve that goal, employers should establish and share the criteria needed for participants to transition to full-time roles. Knowledge of those criteria can motivate participants to achieve the stated milestones and ultimately complete the program requirements.

Evaluate and Fine-Tune Your Returnship Program

It’s important to evaluate the results of your program, particularly in light of how you decided to define its success in the first step above. In addition to the number of participants who successfully complete the program, you may also want to look at hire and retention rates after the program ends. As pointed out in a piece at Forbes:

One measure of program success is the percentage of returners who receive and accept job offers when their returnship ends. More than 60% of Morgan Stanley’s Return to Work graduates remain with the company, for example, as do 86% of those who complete General Motors’ Take 2 program. Path Forward, a nonprofit that connects returners and companies, claims that 82% of its participants were hired after their returnships, and 90% are currently employed.

As companies look for innovative ways to fill open roles in today’s tumultuous job market, returnship programs are clearly a win/win solution for both employees and employers.