Spurring Career Re-Entries in the Water Industry

Returnships can give employers access to a largely untapped talent pool

Spurring Career Re-Entries in the Water Industry

Utilities that struggle to find qualified employees amid the tight labor market might want to consider people who typically don’t even get an initial phone-screening interview: experienced workers who are trying to re-enter the workforce after an extended absence.

And organizations can get those prospective employees into the fold via a program known as a returnship. It’s like an internship, except that it’s designed for older, mid-career professionals who don’t want to start all over at the bottom rung of the corporate ladder.

“Returnships are a great way to engage with a talent pool that’s been hidden, yet identified as high-caliber employees,” says Carol Fishman Cohen. She’s the co-founder and chief executive officer of iRelaunch (www.irelaunch.com), a company that helps organizations develop career re-entry programs, and the author of Back On the Career Track: A Guide for Stay-at-Home Moms Who Want to Return to Work. “They’re growing in popularity.”

In fact, Cohen — who took an 11-year child-rearing break from work herself — says that almost 40% of the Fortune 50 companies run formal career re-entry programs and about 11% of the Fortune 500 companies operate such programs.

“There are now about 125 career re-entry programs at major global companies and about 80% of them use the returnship model and the remainder do direct hiring into full-time roles,” she says.

“There’s been a steady increase in interest in returnships,” says Christine Winston, acting executive director of Path Forward (www.pathforward.org), a nonprofit group that connects people coming off career breaks with companies that don’t mind resume gaps.

“There are more than 225 companies that offer them in the United States. But in order to bring back the millions of women and other caregivers who aren’t participating in the workforce today, we’ll need many, many more of these programs.”

Re-entry is challenging

Even with today’s restricted labor pool, it’s hard for this cohort of potential employees to gain traction with companies. Winston says one study shows that after someone is absent from the workforce for more than two years, they’re half as likely to get a first-round phone-screening interview after submitting a job application.

“And another study found that someone who explains that their career gap was taken to be a stay-at-home mom, you’re another 50% less likely to get a first-round phone screening interview,” she adds.

Returnships help overcome these biases because the programs are structured such that all applicants must have a gap, so applicants don’t compete with others currently in the workforce,” she points out.

“That way they are being considered on their skills and experience instead of the recency of that experience,” Winston explains. “And since caregiving is the No. 1 reason that people of prime working age take breaks from work, returnships can address both the bias around the gap and the bias around caregiving.”

A valuable talent pool

Employees take breaks for a variety of reasons. They include providing child or elder care (which the pandemic definitely increased), personal health issues, accompanying spouses on overseas job assignments and retirees who decide they don’t like retirement, Cohen says.

“A common factor among this cohort is the reason for their career breaks had nothing to do with work performance,” she notes. “Furthermore, they’re predominantly women, so if companies are looking to meet gender diversity goals, this could be a great source of talent.”

People coming off mid-career breaks typically make for great employees. Why? Because they’re generally well-educated, have great work experience, are team-oriented, are used to deadlines and work pressure, bring a mature perspective to the table and find themselves at a relatively stable stage in life, Cohen explains.

“They’ve lived more life and are more fully formed as humans, so they know themselves better and have a better sense of where they can add value to an organization compared to someone new who’s in more of an exploratory mode,” she continues. “They’re also full of energy and enthusiasm about returning to work because they’ve been away for an extended period. Managers commonly say they inject enthusiasm into their workplaces.”

Furthermore, these experienced workers are used to working with different personalities as well as multigenerational teams, can easily access ways to update their skills and don’t need to learn basic skills that entry-level employees often lack.

In addition, returnships aid employee retention because participants generally are more loyal to their employers and not interested in job hopping because they’re more mature and know themselves better.

Fairly simple structure

A returnship essentially is an internship that’s tweaked to better fit a returning career professional. The typical length of a returnship is 12, 16 or 24 weeks, Cohen says.

Depending on the size of the company, career relaunchers often are brought on board in groups, just like summer interns. But unlike those internships, where interns leave after their stint ends, the intent of most returnships is to hire participants as full-time employees.

Sometimes participants are brought on board specifically to fill open positions.

Moreover, the conversion rate — the percentage of people who get hired after completing the program — averages 85%, she says.

“So it’s a well-proven business model,” Cohen says.

But businesses also can opt to not bring returnship participants on board.

Returnship participants receive customized onboarding and orientation programs and usually are assigned a mentor. In addition, their managers usually receive special training because they’ll be contending with people who’ve been absent from the workforce for years and, as such, can feel profoundly disconnected and lack confidence, Cohen says.

“They undergo a different kind of learning curve that someone who’s a lateral hire wouldn’t require,” she notes.

In fact, the biggest obstacle career-relaunchers face is a diminished sense of self from being professionally unmoored for an extended time period in a society where people’s identity is largely built on what they do for a living, Cohen says.

Making returnships work

Successful returnship programs typically have similar key attributes, including someone at the executive level who’s a champion of the concept and a handful of managers who are willing to participate in a pilot program.

It also helps to appoint a manager that “owns” the program; select a name for participants other than “interns,” which helps colleagues perceive them as team members, not temporary employees; hire a group of participants, which makes training more efficient for organizations and provides strength-in-numbers support for participants; and create a formal name for the program, as well as a dedicated landing page on an organization’s website to boost branding efforts and create a focal point for related activities.

In addition, companies should use the program to engage with company alumni who can become potential clients — or even return to the mothership, and educate employees about the program, which in turn can generate word-of-mouth referrals for more career-relaunchers.

Companies can develop programs on their own, but they often underestimate the details involved to create a successful program. That’s where a group like iRelaunch can step in and help, Cohen says.

“We’ve certainly published a lot of information that’s in the public domain that companies can use,” she says. “But if organizations want to develop a program quickly, it helps to work with groups like ours to help them launch programs.”

The proverbial win-win situation

Both iRelaunch and Path Forward can help match people looking to restart their careers with organizations that have returnship programs

“It works both ways here at iRelaunch,” Cohen says. “We bring employers and employees together.

“We also work closely with university alumni organizations, which are very interested in helping alumni that are on career breaks,” she continues. “Returnships are very worthwhile for organizations to pursue — it’s a win-win situation, both for individuals relaunching their careers and for employers who want to find high-quality talent.”


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