‘Returnships’ Make Rejoining the Workforce a Reality

With the economy barreling full-steam ahead and jobless numbers at record lows, employers are struggling to meet the demand for skilled workers. A growing number of organizations are recognizing the value of tapping into the legions of women–and men–who have put their careers on pause to engage in caregiving duties.

In May, Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart Inc. announced a partnership between its technology division, Walmart Labs, and Path Forward, a New York-based non-profit that works with companies to create “returnship” positions for mid-career professionals with at least five years of professional experience who are looking to return to the workforce after leaving to care for a child, parent or other loved one.

Beginning in September, Walmart Labs will offer 16-week paid returnships to up to 30 people in its Sunnyvale, Calif., and San Bruno, Calif., offices. The initial cohort will include a variety of roles in software engineering and product management. Participants will be paired with seasoned managers and mentors who will help them navigate their return to work, as they engage in a variety of learning and development opportunities to help them re-gain the necessary skills.

“Helping people restart their careers after caregiving is great for them and their families, great for the economy, and a great opportunity for Walmart to tap highly skilled, educated and motivated associates,” says Bobbie Grafeld, vice president of people, Walmart Labs.

Path Forward grew out of Return Path, a New York-based data provider that embraced the concept of returnships in an effort to increase the representation of women, particularly in technical roles, in its Broomfield, Colo., office. After launching two internal returnship cohorts and helping five other companies introduce their own programs, the company spun off the concept as a standalone operation, rebranded Path Forward, in March 2016.

Over the past two years, Path Forward has worked with more than 35 companies in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City and Colorado. Early partners included PayPal, Apple, Intuit, Oracle, Medallia, NBC Universal, Verizon Digital Media Services and Campbell Soup. In addition to Walmart Labs, the new cohort will include Github, Nutanix, OSIsoft, Quizlet, Uber and Workday.

According to Executive Director Tami Forman, Path Forward plays a critical role in helping hiring managers overcome internal biases that may negatively impact their impression of someone looking to return to the workplace following an extended, caregiving-related absence.

“People who have been out of the workforce specifically for caregiving violate what some researchers call the ‘ideal worker norm,’ ” says Forman. “They have demonstrably put their family ahead of their career and while we might think that’s a nice decision for someone to make as a person, it’s not the person we want to hire on our team.”

When San Mateo-based software company Medallia first partnered with Path Forward, HR immediately recognized the need to erase the stigma attached to returners. They set out to educate hiring managers and challenge their expectations when it comes to people who have spent a number of years out of the workforce.

“It’s helping people think about talent differently, broadening their expectation of what great talent looks like and what it means to have a gap on your resume,” says Lauren Jackman, director of global inclusion and diversity practice at Medallia. “I saw Path Forward as a way to help Medallions see that you can still be a very qualified candidate and make a really meaningful contribution even if you have a gap in your resume.”

On the employee side, Path Forward helps returners–mostly women–recognize the value of the skills and experiences they acquired while not working in a traditional sense. Whether they were volunteering at their children’s schools or coordinating a community effort, Forman says, women often short-sell themselves when seeking reentry to the workplace.

“There’s no paycheck attached to it, so they don’t put as much value on it, but they have grown their skills, both hard and soft,” says Forman. “They are very tied into technology and social media, along with their ability to collaborate, to get people to work with them, and to use influence versus authority.”

Because their skills are often not valued as highly as those of someone who never left the workforce, there are legitimate concerns that returners may not be fairly compensated, says Pam Jeffords, a partner in Mercer’s Denver office and one of the leaders of the firm’s When Women Thrive initiative. When Mercer surveyed its clients, few companies were willing to divulge how much they were paying their returners. She and her team are scrutinizing the pay practices of returnship programs to ensure participants are paid at the market rate.

In the two years since Medallia launched its partnership with Path Forward, seven people have completed returnships at the company. Of those, 60 percent have come onboard in a permanent capacity. That’s slightly lower than Path Forward’s overall success rate, with 81 percent of its 180 returners seguing into permanent employment. According to Jackman, sometimes the company–or the returner–finds it just isn’t the right fit.  Still, she considers the experience to be a positive one for the company, which just re-upped for another Path Forward cohort.

“Particularly in the technology industry, we often believe the only person who can come in and do this job is the person who is doing this job at a peer company, so you narrow your set,” says Jackman. “If we didn’t have a partnership with Path Forward, we’d miss out on some really great, really qualified candidates.”

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Julie Cook Ramirez
Julie Cook Ramirez is a Rockford, Ill.-based journalist and copywriter covering all aspects of human resources. She can be reached at [email protected]