Have You Heard of a Returnship?

Employers everywhere are finding that a robust economy and low unemployment means fewer applicants for any given role. It’s often difficult to find a well-qualified employee when a vacancy presents itself. As such, they’re thinking of creative ways to expand the talent pool and find candidates who are a good fit.

One option is to utilize what’s become known as a “returnship” program. A returnship plays on the word internship but is focused on individuals who already have work experience but are returning to the workforce after some form of extended absence.

There are many reasons for extended absences from the workforce. Some examples include:

  • Child rearing
  • Caregiving
  • Military service
  • Other personal leave
  • Those who retired early but would like to come back to work
  • Those who have recovered from a long-term or chronic injury/illness/disability (or who are still handing it, but are now able to work again)
  • Work breaks for travel or volunteering
  • Taking time away from work to support a spouse’s career move

In the past, these types of candidates may have been quickly—perhaps too quickly—dismissed for lack of recent experience, as it may have seemed like it would be too difficult to bring them back up to speed, especially if there were other candidates without the resume gaps. But now, employers are recognizing that this group has relevant skills to offer and is ready and willing to take on new challenges and quickly integrate into the team.

Returnship Setup

A returnship is typically set up similarly to an internship: there’s a set time frame for a returning employee to work for the organization temporarily before being considered for a full-time role if all goes well. (It should be noted: the employee may or may not be returning from that organization; they may be simply returning to the workforce in general). During the returnship, the employee is given tools to ease re-entry, and they’re also being evaluated. It’s typically expected that someone who is selected will commit for the entire length of the program and that regular jobs will be extended to some or all of the participants at the end, much like an internship. The roles on offer wouldn’t be entry-level (unlike an internship) and would be commensurate with the experience level of those in the program.

There are several ways a returnship could be set up. For example:

  • It could be either part time or full time for x weeks or months, but with the expectation that a job will be offered at the end to those who are qualified.
  • It could be phased, with progressively more work as the weeks progress, to ease the transition. Some organizations even offer full-time pay for part-time work for the first few weeks to ease the transition, especially for returning former employees who haven’t been out as long.
  • Alternatively, it could be set up as contract or project work, with or without a full-time role at the end.

Returnships often offer some of the following benefits to participants:

  • Mentorships or sponsors
  • Training, including bringing skills up to date
  • Networking and other professional development

Companies offering this type of program may do well to also offer employee benefits aimed at individuals who have been away for an extended period. Things like childcare, elder care, healthcare, flexible schedules, parental and/or personal leave, financial planning/counseling, retirement plans, stress management/counseling, and wellness programs are all examples.

In part 2 of this article, we’ll continue to discuss returnship programs by looking at some of the pros and cons of such a program.

Bridget Miller is a business consultant with a specialized MBA in International Economics and Management, which provides a unique perspective on business challenges. She’s been working in the corporate world for over 15 years, with experience across multiple diverse departments including HR, sales, marketing, IT, commercial development, and training.