Nine years out of the workforce, Soumya Shridharan’s job prospects looked thin. She had five years under her belt, working in software development in India. But she stayed home with her young child when she moved to the United States so her husband could attend graduate school.
When she launched her job search, she got little response to the countless applications she sent out. “I knew I had it in me to do it, but nothing was happening,” said Shridharan, who lives near Seattle.
For Shridharan, the answer was reacHIRE, which runs return-to-work internships at companies across the country. Along with a group of other women, T-Mobile brought Shridharan on for six months to work and brush up on skills. “All of us secured full-time jobs at the end of the six months,” said Shridharan, an analyst for the communications giant.
Since the early 2000s, “returnships,” a term trademarked by Goldman Sachs in 2008, have been part of the solution to the puzzling challenge of how to get women back into the workforce after career breaks – usually to care for kids or aging family members. But now, the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing women to leave the workforce at dramatic levels.
Lean In and McKinsey & Co.’s found that one in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce because of COVID. In September alone, 865,000 of the more than 1.1 million people who left the workforce were women, according to of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ October jobs report.
Bringing women back to the table will require a broad approach, said Elaine Zundl, research director at the . That includes revising workplace policies that don’t allow for flexibility and removing hiring practices that make it difficult for them to return.
But, during this female-led recession, returnships could be part of the solution, proponents say. “It’s even more critical that companies and our society really figure out how to create on-ramps for this great talent,” said Addie Swartz, CEO of .
Leaving in droves
As the economy roils, career opportunities for women look especially bleak. Industries with high numbers of female employees, including retail, food service and hospitality, have been hit hard during the pandemic and are laying off employees in droves, Zundl said.
Meanwhile, other working women are opting out of the labor force as daycares close and schools go virtual. The business of taking care of the kids and home typically falls to women. Research from the Pandemic Parenting Study – a mixed methods survey of women in Southern Indiana – shows that have seen the greatest increase in the time spent caring for children during the pandemic. When women leave the workforce, they lose out on income, future earnings and retirement savings.
It’s never been easy for working women to get back to work. One 2018 study found that were half as likely as unemployed ones to get a call back from a potential employer, even with the same qualifications.
Employers worry – often incorrectly – that women who stepped off the career track are technologically obsolete or aren’t committed to working, said Carol Fishman Cohen, co-founder of , which works with more than 100 companies to launch and expand in-house return-to-work programs.
That’s where return-to-work programs come in. They first began appearing in the early 2000s on Wall Street. Lehman Bros, Goldman Sachs and others built the programs as leaders counted the number of women who were quitting instead of moving into senior roles, Cohen said.
Participants in typical reentry programs are selected through a competitive process for a paid job that runs as long as six months. Pay and benefits for returners vary depending on the role and the company. With reacHIRE’s programs, pay is commensurate with the permanent role they move into, Swartz said. They also get health care benefits and sick time.
During the program, they work in a role based on their past experience or current interest and receive mentoring, training and other support. Often, they move through the returnship with other women (and some men), developing a network of support. “That group was a solid pillar of strength,” Shridharan said of her T-Mobile cohort.
At the end, nearly all of the so-called returners in reacHIRE’s and iRelaunch’s programs remain in the workforce. They’ve been so successful that some of the companies that iRelaunch works with have transitioned to direct-hire programs that offer the support of a returnship with the benefits of a full-time job from day one.
“What’s interesting about this evolution is that, based on the companies’ actions, they are perceiving it less risky to hire a relauncher than they originally thought,” Cohen said.
Creating ‘one tiny door’
During the pandemic, return-to-work programs have continued virtually, but there are challenges to the approach.
Firstly, returnship programs aren’t widespread. Some 34% of Fortune 50 companies have in-house programs, Cohen said. A smaller percentage of Fortune 500 companies offer them, but Cohen said she sees growing interest.
In addition, these programs have typically served women with advanced degrees or highly technical skills in financial services and technology, though Cohen points out that she’s worked with a healthcare company on a program for returning nurses. “We think that there can be organized return-to-work programs for a whole range of different types of roles,” she said.
While returnships may work for people with highly transferable skills, such as experience in the financial services or technology industries where they’ve been most popular, some women will need more targeted programs, especially those working in sectors requiring less education, like retail. “We really need to think about this as an opportunity to have a widespread policy for how we’re going to upskill and retool this workforce,” Zundl said.
And if a company came to Jessica Lambrecht, CEO of , a human resources consulting firm, to start a return-to-work program, she’d suggest they just create better workplace policies. That includes adjusting hiring policies so that career breaks like the ones many mothers end up taking don’t immediately eliminate applicants from consideration. Companies should also create onboarding practices that assume all new employees will need to improve some skills, Lambrecht said.
“If you’re not assessing your workplace policies or hiring process, you’re just perpetuating the problem,” Lambrecht said. “You’re keeping everyone out and creating this one tiny door that people can come back in instead of creating a real entrance.”
Path to economic freedom
But for returners, these re-entry programs can end a years-long fruitless job search or spark a transition to a new career.
After getting laid off in 2008 from her medical sales job, Christine Dohrmann left the workforce for a decade to stay at home with her kids. When she started looking for a new job, she quickly realized that medical sales, including the travel it required, was no longer a good fit, but she enjoyed the marketing tasks from her previous job.
Two years ago, Dohrmann became the first returnship candidate at Bandwidth, a Raleigh, N.C.,-based software communications company. Now, she’s a full-time marketing program manager for the company. Re-entry programs could make it easier for women to take the time off they need because they know there are opportunities for them to get back to work when they’re ready, she said.
“If we had more companies that did stuff like this, it probably wouldn’t be so difficult for women to make those choices,” she said. “These kinds of programs will have the ability to offer women more economic freedom.”