The Rise of Returnships

It’s no secret that today’s job economy is shifting. People are more impatient, more curious, more committed to the sustainability of their happiness and growth as a human being which includes their approach to working life. This change is attitude is particularly apparent when it comes to returnships.

Returning to work following a career break can be a challenge. Depending on the length of your break, a lot may have changed within your workplace and the broader industry. Returnships are aimed at those who have specifically taken extended breaks in their career, mostly over the course of a few years. They’re designed around the concept of higher-level internships that act as a bridge to back to senior roles for experienced professionals who have taken aforementioned career breaks. Similar to graduate schemes and internships, contracts typically last for 3-6 months, during which time the individual benefits from coaching and mentoring while developing skills needed for the role with potential to develop into a full time position. For many, particularly parents who may take on the role of stay at home mum or dad for their kids, this helps deal with fears that employers will find their break for the workforce unattractive forcing them to take a step back in terms of salaries and career status. From an employers point of view, offering returnships serves as an outreach opportunity to a pool of talent that may have been otherwise overlooked. Goldman Sachs led the charge in 2008 with their own returnship programme while Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse and JPMorgan soon followed suit.

Reaction to these programmes varies. Some parents find it patronising and unnecessary, a way for employers to take advantage of mothers with low confidence following time spent away from the workforce. For those more skeptical, these programmes may be seen as validating the idea that those who have chosen to take a career break due to family commitments, are less capable than candidates who have continuously worked, something not everyone is convinced of. How much does someone’s skill set really diminish after taking a year or two out of work? Is that enough to justify placing them in a more junior role?

Rebecca Lang penned an article on the topic of returnships for the online community, Motherly. “Certainly things change over time. New technology, industry innovations, and workplace trends create a learning curve that steepens the longer one’s been gone, but lumping everyone with a gap of two or more years into one group, assuming they need extra help just to function in a workplace, and then funneling them into highly competitive programs that don’t guarantee employment lets companies off the hook of evaluating resumes of career re-launchers in an unbiased way,” she argues.

On the flip side, others feel the concept plays a huge role in shifting their mindset back to that of work mode. Using the examples of mothers – while returnships aren’t designed exclusively for them – the shift from family being the number one priority to being just one of many to juggle can be a significant mental shift to retrain your brain to be focused on business and strategies. The same shift applies to those whose career break was brought on by caring for elderly or ill family members. These re-entrance programs offer slightly less commitment on both sides of the employer and the returner which makes things easier if the employee isn’t ready to return to work full time. The idea is for the employer and employee to work together to make the transition easier, to prepare for a competitive environment and integrate into the higher level positions that they originally left or were on track to achieve. Potentially of more importance is the opportunity these returnships offer men and women to tap into professional networks that they otherwise may not have had access to.

While the number of companies supporting returnship programmes is certainly on the rise, these programmes aren’t a given for re-hire opportunities. In some cases, you may have to be prepared to make a case for the programme. Ideally, you’ll be able to make a case for yourself that you have what it takes to be hired straight away but in the event that you feel a returnship would be of much more value to you, work on convincing the company of the return on investment that the company can expect. Work with current employees within the organisation to develop a business case for it, identify talent gaps and through suggesting how the programme could be designed, offer a case for how these gaps could be filled through a returnship structure.

If returning to work is on your mind following a career break, other options included taking on contracting work as a means to get your foot in the door again. Companies frequently require outside help from experiences, highly-skilled professionals for specific projects or seasonal work. Getting involved in this kind of work allows for flexibility and less commitment while in pursuit of a full-time role.

At this time, it’s more important than ever to up your networking game too. Unfortunately, as the old career adage goes, it’s not what you know but who you know and those connections make the world of difference when exploring new career options. Now is the time to prove that you’ve still got it. Let people know you’re ready to return to work and you may be surprised by your own connections.

Niamh Crawford-Walker

Niamh is a full time fashion and features writer at The Style Edit. Her work has previously appeared in IMAGE magazine, image.ie and Emirates Woman.

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