Eva Sage-Gavin: Rolling out the welcome (back) mat

Did you know that more than 2.6 million women in the U.S. hold college degrees but do not work outside the home? And 40% of American mothers have reduced their hours or taken time off for caregiving, with 27% leaving the workforce entirely. But it’s not just women who are staying home to take care of their families. Data from Pew Research Center show 17% of all stay-at-home parents are lead parents, a figure expected to rise with the next generation.

As I read these stats earlier this year in various media outlets, I found myself nodding my head. As a career woman with a family, I could relate to the challenges of trying to straddle two worlds successfully–career and home, while also managing successful dual careers. And the leadership lesson has been deeply personal.

Years ago, my husband took one year off from his law-firm career to be the lead parent with our daughter and support my promotion in a Fortune 50 company. We painfully remember how difficult it was for him to explain to hiring managers that it was the right thing for our family–and not a questionable “gap” in his résumé. At that time, some saw it as doubly negative because, not only he had taken this step voluntarily before the concept of paternity leave was considered acceptable, it was also a sacrifice of his career momentum to propel mine. There was no easy ramp back after his one-year family leave, and few resources available to help.

This is why I’m very excited to see returnships begin to increase in number, as they are a phenomenal return-to-work option for men and women who have taken a few years off for any reason. And it seems you can hardly pick up a business publication that is not highlighting them lately (including HRE). Similar to traditional internships, companies hire individuals for a specified number of months. They provide mentoring, training and–in some cases–competitive pay and benefits. A host of companies now offer them. Returnships are becoming part of the talent pool ecosystem, which is a good thing–for workers and for companies who are in dire need of experienced talent.

It couldn’t be happening at a better time. As we watch our workforce demographics shift, millennials are coming center stage. A vast majority–84%of millennial men and women say they expect to take a “significant” break during their careers. As HR leaders, we encourage work/life blending, right? On the flip side, though, we are simultaneously trying to reverse the sharp drop-off in female leaders above middle management–fueling the pipeline with talented women. Our companies are setting bold goals for gender equality. My current employer, Accenture, is on track to achieve gender parity by 2025, with 50% representation, and our new CEO, Julie Sweet, has just taken the reins.

Looking for innovative approaches to these opportunities, I had the pleasure of speaking with Fran Katsoudas, executive vice president and chief people officer at Cisco, about the company’s returnship strategy, which was developed to improve gender diversity and identify new pools of talent in the hyper-competitive tech industry. As context, women in tech make up from 27% to 47% of the workforce at major tech companies, but that number drops to as low as 17% for IT or technology-related jobs . Cisco is proactively and innovatively tackling this challenge.

For Cisco’s first round of returnships, it recently partnered with Women Back to Work, an organization that helps women reenter the workforce. Over 16 weeks, participants were assigned to areas that matched their technology interests and skills, from enterprise networking to software development. Seventy-three percent of those returnship participants are becoming true returners–with full-time jobs at Cisco post-program. “We considered our first round a learning experiment and so kept it small,” explains Melissa Morganstein, vice president of human resources. “But it was so well-received, we are planning a second, far bigger, round with 40-plus candidates in 2020.”

Nathan Sheranian, who leads HR for the company’s Internet of Things business unit, talked about what the team learned from a leadership perspective: “Check your assumptions at the door. Some of our candidates in round one were women who had been out of the workforce for 15 years. I was nervous about how well candidates could pick up technical and engineering skills after lengthy hiatuses. But we found that there are talented developers who can come in and assimilate again very quickly.”

In addition to training participants, Cisco also receives strong business sponsorship from leaders including Sonar Thekdi, vice president of engineering business operations for Cisco’s Internet of Things. And they wisely chose to train their managers, who were carefully selected. “We covered things like interviewing skills when covering résumé gaps. Instead of focusing negatively on the gap, probe for crossover skills that could be useful,” Nathan explained.

Candidates were also able to access learning offerings, taking a quick online assessment that would evaluate their skills and provide education in areas where they needed it.

I couldn’t agree more with Sheranian’s advice to check our assumptions at the door. In a recent conversation with Walmart Labs–another organization that is conducting returnships–HR lead Bobbie Grafeld, vice president of human resources at Walmart eCommerce, shared: “It’s an overlooked talent pool. If you have a gap on your résumé, recruiters immediately dismiss you. This talent pool is highly educated and highly skilled. They just need a little help getting their foot back in the door.”

Sudeep Ralhan, head of human resources at Walmart Labs, adds: “It’s not just about the technology skills they need to catch up on. We also need to invest a lot in confidence building. Being out of the workforce for a few years, combined with rejection from recruiters, takes its toll.”

Cisco’s Sheranian shared a story that has stayed with me. “As we were onboarding returnship candidates, I was touched by the story of a woman who had left the workforce several years ago for some very pressing family reasons. She shared that, as she had tried to reenter the workforce, she was turned down for interviews 25 times prior to us. She was grateful for the opportunity, and we’re so grateful now to have her as part of our team.”

That’s the very definition of a win/win, in my book. At a time when good talent can be hard to source, returnships are a wonderful way to get mid-career experience back to work. And, as we strive to achieve more diverse organizations, it’s wonderful to see some highly qualified and experienced executives join our teams again. Our companies win, our families win and everyone benefits.


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Eva Sage-Gavin
HR Leadership columnist Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than three decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.