It’s Not an Internship–It’s a ‘Returnship’

Kathy Bayert should be a sought-after candidate for any recruiter: She holds an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School, plus stints at IBM and PricewaterhouseCoopers. There’s a catch, however: Like many women in the workforce, she took a few years off to spend time raising a family. When these women decide to restart their careers, they face an uphill battle. Bayert was lucky, however: Even though the economy was in the doldrums when she began looking for a job at age 42, she found a “returnship” at Sara Lee Corp.–basically, a six-month paid position designed for a professional who’d been out of the workforce for several years. Bayert applied, was accepted and six months later was hired as a senior manager of organizational effectiveness. The program was “critical as a springboard back into the workforce,” she said.

Bayert’s experience is profiled in the November issue of the Harvard Business Review in a piece penned by Carol Fishman Cohen. Cohen is cofounder of iRelaunch, a company focused on return-to-work issues. Returnships are an ideal way for companies to screen experienced talent who, in many cases, have already put the stages of taking breaks from work to have children behind them, she writes. Although most participants in these programs are women, some are male and — considering the growing number of men who are taking time off to help raise children — that number will likely continue growing. In her piece, Cohen offers a few tips for HR leaders who are considering starting a returnship program:

  • Keep it small: it’s easier to get buy-in and build a successful track record that way, she writes.
  • Identify some internal champions: At Sara Lee, CEO Brenda Barnes, who had taken some time off for child-rearing, was a champion of the program
  • Model the returnship on your existing internship program
  • Introduce hiring managers to participants: managers are often reluctant to consider people whose skills they fear may be outdated; face-to-face meetings between them and returnship particpants can erase those fears, Cohen writes.
  • Expand campus recruitment to include returnees: when recruiting for interns, make it clear that all ages are welcome, she writes.
  • Partner with an academic program:Some universities and graduate schools have begun offering short-term skill-building programs for professionals looking to get back into the workforce.
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