Resume Gap? Corporate ‘Returnships’ For Career Breakers Could Help.

By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz
Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As companies grapple with talent shortages and gender imbalances, some are accommodating applicants’ resume gaps with “returnships”, usually paid internships for returning professionals to get them up to speed and back in the swing of the working world.  What a terrific way of empowering women, so many educated mothers who want to get back into the workforce after raising young children.


The dreaded resume gap. After a career break, be it to raise a child, care for an elderly parent or jet around the world, those years without relevant work experience can stretch like a moat outside the hiring manager’s door.

The good news, especially for women, who make up the majority of career breakers, is that many companies have gaps of their own.

As they grapple with talent shortages and gender imbalances, some are accommodating applicants’ resume gaps with “returnships”, usually paid internships for returning professionals to get them up to speed and back in the swing of the working world, with the opportunity to get hired at the end.

A new initiative in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field drew seven major companies to commit to launching pilot re-entry programs this year.

IBM, GM and Booz Allen Hamilton have announced their inaugural programs, and Intel, Johnson Controls, Cummins and Caterpillar are expected to roll theirs out within the next couple of months.

“This is really a win-win,” said Silvia Karlsson, vehicle systems engineer at GM, whose 12-week Take 2 re-entry program begins in April. “You get to try us out, and we get to try you out and see how we both fit, in a bit of a less scary situation.”

There’s high demand. GM received over 300 applications for 10 slots, Karlsson said. The company hopes to hire all 10 of its interns, whose career breaks ranged from four to 21 years, into permanent positions, she said.

Returnships have gained steam in other industries as a way to help career breakers get a foot back in the door at a time when companies competing for high-skill talent place a greater emphasis on employees’ family priorities.

Goldman Sachs was a pioneer when it launched its (trademarked) Returnship program for men and women in 2008, and other financial services firms from Morgan Stanley to Credit Suisse debuted their own a couple of years ago.

More than half of the participants who have completed Credit Suisse’s 11-week Real Returns program secured a permanent job at the company, said Belinda Jettar, co-manager of the program. The paid internship includes a week of training boot camp to refresh technical and soft skills, an ongoing speaker series and networking across divisions to encourage exploration of professional options.

In Chicago, Sara Lee launched a re-entry program in 2008 under then-CEO Brenda Barnes, based in part on her own experience leaving her chief executive post at PepsiCo to spend time with her family.

The now-defunct Sara Lee program was useful to Sue Brose.

Brose had been working nearly 30 years when she took a career break after having her second child. When she tried to return to work full time four years later, the conversations were disappointing.

Employers fretted that she’d be slow, behind the times, irrelevant, Brose said. She recalls one recruiter asking her: “Well, do you think you still got it?”

Brose, who had last been regional sales manager at Minute Maid, knew she did but needed to convince those whose opinions mattered most.

Accepted into Sara Lee’s internship program in 2009, Brose was placed in the food service division, where for six months she worked part time at a somewhat discounted pay rate while also participating in leadership training and career analysis sessions. She was hired at the end as a customer marketing manager.

“I think it helped me step up my game and prepare me for the next steps,” said Brose, 55, now national sales and business development manager at Morton Salt. She said she has surpassed where she was when she stepped out.

Roughly 2.6 million educated mothers of prime working age are not in the labor force, said Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO of iRelaunch, which provides tools and resources for career relaunchers and hosts an annual Return to Work conference.

Though Cohen said she is seeing an increasing number of men who have taken breaks for child care interested in her re-entry services, and both genders coming back after taking care of elderly parents, the bulk of career relaunchers are still women who stepped out to raise their kids.

Cohen teamed up with the Society of Women Engineers to create the STEM Re-Entry Task Force that recruited the seven companies to launch pilot programs. The hope is for STEM interns who land jobs to present at SWE’s October conference in Philadelphia to help recruit relaunchers for the next class.

“This is a project I’ve been most excited about because it’s groundbreaking and reflects our core values” of building a diverse talent base, and “addresses a long-standing challenge in a new way,” Booz Allen Senior Vice President Natalie Givans said. Interns accepted to Booz Allen’s nine-week program, which starts in June, will work in management consulting, systems engineering, software development/engineering and electrical engineering.

Karen Horting, executive director and CEO of the Society of Women Engineers, said the organization “jumped at” the chance to get involved in the initiative. Women represent just 12 percent of the engineering workforce. More than a quarter of women with engineering degrees have left the field, often to spend more time with family, according to SWE.

“You need to have programs that bring women back, and you have to have a workplace culture that includes them,” said Horting, who expects 100 interns to be hired for the inaugural STEM returnships. Research from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee found women with engineering degrees cited workplace climate or culture in the male-dominated field, including a lack of flexible work arrangements, as a common reason for leaving or not starting an engineering career.

The notion that a professional with years of experience would have to work at docked pay and repay her dues through an internship can feel frustrating. But Cohen said returnships are resume-worthy experiences that enhance a candidate while making the hire less risky for employers.

“I think it’s just the reality of it,” Horting agreed. “The workplace changes pretty quickly.”

Kate Bensen, CEO of The Chicago Network, a leadership club for high-ranking Chicago women, called returnships “a great concept.”

“It’s not appropriate to think that you’re going to walk in at the same level as when you left,” said Bensen, who is not involved in the initiative. “I do think you have to reprove yourself, but not necessarily for a long time.”

Bensen was a partner at law firm Schiff Harden when she took a career break in 2003. She said she couldn’t have stepped back in as a partner after her 3 {-year break, but she knew she wanted a career change anyway.

Hoping to transition to nonprofits, Bensen served as volunteer chair of the Women’s Board at the University of Chicago during her time off to build skills she didn’t have. She said the experience helped prepare her for the job she has now.

Bensen said she encourages career breakers to find some kind of part-time arrangement that keeps them on their industry’s radar. If that’s not possible, they should make sure to network, do something valuable as a volunteer or somehow keep their skills current, she said.

“I’m not sure that women are necessarily thinking through the consequences of stepping off and opting out,” Bensen said. “The doors are just not opening (when they try to return), and that can be a really humbling experience.”

Cohen calls the career break “a gift” because it offers time to step back and reflect whether you’ve been on the right path. She encourages career relaunchers to do a career assessment, consult with their alumni career services, take courses to brush up on basic office software and build up old and new contacts to chat about industry changes and career decisions.

She has plans in the works to expand the returnships to more industries. Until then, she said, people can informally create their own.

Hilary Rosenberg, 44, did just that.

When Rosenberg left her job as an assistant business manager at Unilever after she had her first child in 2001, she didn’t know she would have three kids and that it would be eight years before she would start looking for work again.

She said she networked for a year but felt people didn’t take her seriously. Headhunters who had once sought her out wouldn’t return her phone calls. Her time spent volunteering at her kids’ schools was received as “fluff.”

“What I heard over and over again was that I didn’t have any relevant experience,” she said. “Nobody cared what I did 12, 14 years ago, even if it was interesting.”

Through a friend of a friend, Rosenberg met the owner of a public relations firm and arranged to work unpaid two days a week, one at home and one at the office, managing social media accounts for clients. She did that for 10 months, “eating humble pie every single week”, before she started looking for a full-time job again, armed with expertise in the hottest marketing trend.

Rosenberg noticed that hiring managers paid attention to her self-driven internship as a sign that she was serious. It took time, but in 2014 she got a job as a project coordinator at Dairy Management, which promotes dairy products.

Though she estimates she is two levels from where she was before she stepped off, Rosenberg is grateful for the job and the opportunity.

Her time away did show a bit at first.

During her first week at work, she said, she went into a meeting without her mobile phone, worried it would be perceived as rude.

Ah, the old days.

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