Are Returnships Really the Answer for Moms Who Have Taken a Career Break?


Trisha Almeida had been working at an information-systems company for nine years when she quit after her maternity leave ran out. “I wanted to give my son, Aidan, my undivided attention,” says the San Francisco mom, who gave birth in 2012. By the time Aidan was 4, Trisha was ready to lean back in. She started networking and posting her resume on job sites with little success. “I got a lot of calls over six months, but once they realized I’d been on a break, it wouldn’t go further,” she says. “I never expected people to think twice about hiring someone with my many years of experience.”

Trisha’s trouble getting hired after being a stay-at-home mom doesn’t surprise Tami Forman, executive director of Path Forward, a nonprofit founded in 2016 that has created temporary positions in 35 companies for women who’ve been out of the workforce. “Managers are reticent to make a hiring decision that could backfire. When they’re looking at two resumes, and one has a gap and one doesn’t, the one without the gap feels like the safer bet.” Add to that the mostly unfounded fear that returning women don’t want to be away from home and working again, and few hiring managers are willing to take the chance.

But Apres, another organization that connects women who’ve been out of the workforce with jobs, estimates that 3 million women with advanced degrees are trying to re-enter. And companies are starting to pay more attention to this talent pool. From financial-services firms to tech start-ups, corporations are creating their own career re-entry programs or enlisting the help of third-party businesses like Apres and Path Forward to recruit and train potential hires while easing the transition of going back to work. But are they working?

So what the heck is a returnship?

Midlevel career internships, or “returnships,” are nine-week-to six-month-long “test drives,” says Addie Swartz, CEO of ReacHIRE, which provides women with programs that help with skill retooling and finding jobs. During that time, a company evaluates a candidate, teaches relevant skills, and eventually decides whether it will offer the candidate a permanent job. “It’s also an opportunity for the individual to see if they like the culture, fit and pace of the company,” Swartz adds. Open to women and men who have taken time off for various reasons— from eldercare to medical leave—the programs attract mostly women who have off-ramped for childrearing.


Three million women with advanced degrees are trying to re-enter the workforce.

Interns often start on the same date and go through the program together attending training sessions, panels and lunch-and-learns. “You’re not an entry-level intern; you’re not a lateral hire—you’re a hybrid,” says Carol Fishman Cohen, co-founder and CEO of career re-entry firm iRelaunch. “To go through it with others like you is empowering. It provides cohesion and personal and professional support.”

Who are they best for?

Women who can especially benefit from a returnship are those who have been out of the workforce in a rapidly changing field. After a 15-year break to be home with her two sons and help with her two stepsons, Sherry Gordon of Austin, TX, was in the final round of interviews for what seemed like the perfect software-engineer position. “I’d written operating system code and application code for the company’s computer system in my previous job,” she says. But at her final interview, “the manager went down a list with 20 different terms covering software, programming languages and IT jargon, and asked: ‘Do you know this? Have you worked with this?’ My answer was primarily no.” She didn’t get the job.

“It was discouraging,” she says. “As a programmer, you’re always learning new languages and new tools, and I felt like I had the aptitude and the desire to learn whatever was required.”

Fortunately, Sherry was able to tap into an opportunity through iRelaunch’s STEM Re-entry Task Force. She did a 12-week internship with General Motors’ Take 2 program and was hired as a software developer. Even if she hadn’t have scored a permanent job, the experience would have been worth it to her. “Anything I could do to update my skills, start networking again, get my confidence up and enhance my resume, I was willing to do,” she says. She credits the General Motors returnship with bridging the gap between her once-obsolete skills and her love for learning new things and problem solving.

A returnship can also be useful for someone who wants to explore a new field. Ellein Cheing of New York City had a background in teaching and as a financial risk analyst before giving birth to her two daughters. When they were 4 and 2, she decided to return to the workforce but wasn’t sure she was still interested in being in a classroom. “My biggest struggle was figuring out where I wanted to be in the next stage of my career,” she says.

Keeping an open mind about non-education prospects, Ellein turned to Path Forward. “They had launched their partnership with advertising technology company AppNexus, and one of their core values caught my eye: ‘Learn. Teach. Build.’ They wanted a candidate with a passion for learning and teaching. I thought, ‘I can relate to that!’ So I gave it a shot.”

While she was anxious about switching into a new field before starting, she was hired as a product-support specialist at the end of her 16 weeks.

But are they successful?

Financial-services firm Morgan Stanley launched its internal Return to Work program in 2014 to attract experienced women who had taken career breaks. “We started with a class of about 15 and offered a solid number of those women full-time roles,” says Susan Reid, global head of diversity and inclusion. It was such a success, in fact, that the competitive program—more than 3,000 people globally have applied for about 160 spots—has expanded internationally to six locations. Over 60 percent of Morgan Stanley Return to Work participants have stayed on. “It’s core to our model that this is a pathway to full-time employment,” Reid insists.

Other programs boast similar numbers. Goldman Sachs says it’s hired 50 percent of interns since the program’s inception in 2008, while MetLife hired 11 out of 12 participants from its 2014 pilot program. Forman says approximately 80 percent of the 50 people who have gone through Path Forward since its launch in 2016 were offered jobs where they did their returnships, and 85 percent were employed, part- or full-time, six months later.


“Anything I could do to update my skills, start networking again, get my confidence up and enhance my resume, I was willing to do.”

Trisha was part of that 80 percent. She found a returnship through Path Forward at San Francisco marketing and advertising company Demandbase. After 16 weeks, she was offered a permanent position as a project manager.

More companies are seeing that returnships are a great way to attract top talent. In 2017, third-party company the Mom Project launched a program with BP; Oracle, Young & Rubicam Group and United Technologies all have new-for-2018 programs.

Are there drawbacks?

Of course, not everyone gets hired. “Sometimes it doesn’t work out, but that’s the beauty of the program,” argues Adela Vinot, the manager of General Motors’ Take 2 program. “Some candidates tell us they were ready, but their children were not. Others might have been encouraged by family and friends but were not actually ready themselves. Still others find that they actually were looking for something new.”

And while other companies wouldn’t comment on why some interns don’t get hired, Cohen says sometimes they might want more time to evaluate a candidate, choosing to extend the internship rather than make an offer. Or perhaps the open headcount during the application period doesn’t exist when the internship ends. Or maybe the company wants to offer only a contract role.

The fact that there are no guarantees can be disheartening for women without clear next steps at the end of the returnship, especially if the position was diffcult. Of her internship as a product specialist at AppNexus, Ellein says: “Each day of taking customer cases seemed like day one of learning all over again. Often my colleagues would ask me: ‘How’re you doing? Crushing cases?’ And my reaction was, ‘More like being crushed by cases.’ It was humbling.”

Sherry had a similar experience at General Motors. “At home I considered myself the CFO and the CIO. But interns know relatively nothing about the current technology, and you have to ask for help—constantly.”

It can also be a big adjustment at home. “You need your family to work as a team to figure out the logistics,” says Ellein. Trisha asked her mom to come from India to take care of Aidan at home. But not all women have that support system.

How much can you really make?

Another big issue: paychecks. Returnship participants need to be financially stable enough to forgo a full salary for several months. They tend to make more than college interns, but usually below market rate for their skills. And if their kids are still young and they don’t have family around, the moms might need to pay for childcare now.

“I always tell people it’s a development opportunity, an investment,” says Forman, who estimates that interns get paid $25 to $45 an hour. Cohen says companies “will find a midlevel role a person might convert to if they were successful, take that salary range, pick a number in the middle, and then prorate it for the number of weeks of the internship.”

Participants don’t seem to mind the wages. “Even if they were not paying me anything, if the returnship was going to take me back into my career, I would have done it,” says Trisha.

Once an intern is asked to stay on, the new salary negotiation reflects her prior experience. Forman says it varies based on how long she has been out of the workforce and how much the world has changed. “Someone who has taken a five or a 10-year break is going to pay a price for that,” she says. “It’s not uncommon to see a woman who might have been a level-five engineer who has been out for five years come back as a level-two.” But Forman tells employers not to expect a discount. And it’s not so bleak in the long run. Cohen points out, “Hired interns are going to be moving up over time.”


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