Shonda Rhimes, the famed creator and producer of award-winning television shows, including “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” is also the mother of three children. In an interview with NPR, Rhimes shared that witnessing her own mother’s transition from a stay-at-home mother of six children to an accomplished professional showed her the possibility of navigating parenthood and career success.
After raising children for many years, the elder Mrs. Rhimes obtained her bachelor’s degree and then a PhD. “It was very cool to watch her evolve in this way – go from being, you know, a stay-at-home mother of six to being a full-fledged professional out in the world,” said Rhimes. “And for her, I think it was incredibly freeing and very exciting to have a huge second act.”
Rhimes’ mother was — and is — not alone in her desire for a second act. Research shows that more than 3 million U.S. women are currently hoping to return to work after a career hiatus. For these women, as well as veterans and returning retirees, one effective strategy is pursuing an internship designed specifically for them: a mid-career on-ramp often called a “returnship.”
What Are Returnships?
More than 2.6 million women in the United States hold bachelor’s, masters, or PhD degrees but do not work outside the home, according to Working Mother. In fact, 40% of American mothers have, at some point in their lives, reduced their hours or taken time off to care for a child or family member and 27% have left the workforce entirely.
When this latter cohort — which likely contains educated, white collar women who have the privilege of choosing not to work — is ready to return, they initially seek the well-paying, professional career tracks they abandoned. However, with an extended career gap on their resume, this strategy can be a difficult proposition.
Stephanie Won, a former marketing professional in the technology industry, was one such “returner.” After a decade of raising her daughters, it took her almost four years to land a suitable position. “I joined three career search organizations, three success teams, and last year attended 65 events,” she writes. “I applied and interviewed with 29 non-profits, 37 for-profits, and connected with 50 recruiters.”
Returnships, a term trademarked by Goldman Sachs in 2008, aim to mitigate the obstacles faced by Won and many others. Modeled after traditional student internships, organizations hire individuals for a few months to a year during which they pair employment with mentoring and training. The benefits are twofold: returners gain skills, confidence, and connections, and employers evaluate prospective candidates risk-free. Returnships can provide an excellent segue back into the working world; here are three strategies to maximize their potential.
Get Ahead of the Game
Following her own reentry into the workforce, Carol Fishman Cohen founded iRelaunch, an organization that amplifies returnships through resources, events, and academic and corporate partnerships.
In a widely-viewed TED talk, Fishman Cohen admitted she suffered from a lack of confidence after her career break. For returners experiencing similar challenges, she encourages them to network with former classmates and colleagues. “It’s a great confidence boost to be back in touch with these people and hear their enthusiasm about your interest in returning to work,” she said.
Dr. Gayatri Devi agrees with Fishman Cohen’s “tell everyone” approach. “If you want something you first have to ask for it,” she said in a talk at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies. “I think that’s something that women don’t do as much…. But you have to ask, and you have to keep asking. And ask as many people as you can.”
In addition to reconnecting with their network, becoming educated on how trends in their fields have evolved provides aspiring returners with critical knowledge that helps position themselves for the current work environment. For example, Fishman Cohen read the Wall Street Journal every day for six months before attempting to return to the financial world. She called it the responsibility of returners to refresh their technical knowledge and to assess their interests and skills to determine “where they can add the most value” for a potential employer.
Research Program Outcomes
Since Sara Lee and Goldman Sachs unveiled their returnship programs more than a decade ago, many companies have followed suit. Returners will find opportunities in finance, including Credit Suisse’s Real Returns; engineering, as with the STEM Re-Entry Task Force; and law, through the OnRamp Fellowship. On its site, iRelaunch lists more than 90 paid corporate programs.
Amidst this proliferation of offerings, it can be difficult for returners to select the program that would prove most advantageous for them. It is vital, therefore, that returners research curricula and results before committing to a particular organization.
One measure of program success is the percentage of returners who receive and accept job offers when their returnship ends. More than 60%of Morgan Stanley’s Return to Work graduates remain with the company, for example, as do 86% of those who complete General Motors’ Take 2 program. Path Forward, a nonprofit that connects returners and companies, claims that 82% of its participants were hired after their returnships, and 90% are currently employed.
Returnships are often extremely competitive, with reported acceptance rates varying from .025% at General Motors to .019% at Goldman Sachs. With such high selectivity for some programs, those wishing to return to work must also consider other options.
Some, in fact, criticize returnships as a way to exploit the low confidence of returning women. In an interview with CNBC, Allison O’Kelly, the founder and CEO of career development firm Corps Team, advises returners that: “Consideration for a returnship should be after many other avenues have been exhausted,” warning the internship-like title may lead employers to “undermine great work and skills.”
Alternative approaches for returning to the workforce include seeking further education, hiring a career coach, volunteering strategically, networking, and attending conferences. Returners can also utilize the cadre of recruiting platforms that specialize in women and returning mothers, such as Après, reacHIRE, The Mom Project, and Second Shift, and women-centric job boards like Power to Fly and Fairygodboss.
While returnships can be a powerful tool, they are not the sole solution for returning workers and are also not a panacea. According to Werk, 95% of working women need “access to flexibility,” but only 34% of them experience it. Addressing this “flexibility gap” should be a priority for organizations across the country. By expanding paid leave and workplace flexibility, women might feel less pressured to leave the workforce in the first place.
As Gloria Steinem explained in a talk at Columbia University, “When men have children, they’re more likely to be hired, and when women have children, they’re less likely to be hired, because it’s assumed that they will be distracted. We have to equalize all of that.” Indeed, there is much work to be done to develop more pathways for women and others to return to the workforce after an extended career break. Structured returnship programs provide one approach to navigating workforce reentry. These programs are a potent tool that returning professionals can leverage to bridge their resume gaps to relaunch their careers.