Returnships: the effective way to help women back to work?

Returning professional internships are quietly emerging as one of the most effective vehicles for US professionals seeking to resume their careers after extended breaks for childcare, eldercare, or other reasons, according to a new study.

Although some companies in the UK have looked at various ways of encouraging women back into the workplace after career breaks and professional internships are little known among US employers, the study by Carol Fishman Cohen, co-founder of irelaunch, says the short-term, non-binding work arrangements provide “a nearly perfect mechanism for reducing the impediments associated with hiring returning professionals”. For the employer,  they say, an internship offers a low-risk structure in which to assess the potential benefits of hiring an employee. For the employee, an internship provides the opportunity to produce a work sample while gaining resume-worthy experience and evaluating the fit of the work environment. The authors hope such programmes will become “an accepted and commonplace part of employer hiring practices”.

The report, Returning Professional “Internships” – A New Strategy for Employers to Access High Calibre Talent and for Professionals to Reenter the Workforce,  describes how returning professional internships come in various forms including consulting projects, special projects, contract assignments, research fellowships, externships, returnships, temp work, executive in residence programmes, strategic volunteering projects, or field studies.

It says the potential of returning professional internships as a career reentry vehicle came to light from the convergence of a number of events beginning in 2006. MIT Professional Education in 2006 and Pace Law School in 2007 created return to work programmes that included an internship component. Goldman Sachs and Sara Lee then established internship programmes for returning professionals in 2008. A year later, BBN Technologies initiated a return to work internship programme. It also mentions programmes such as the Daphne Jackson Fellowship Programme in the UK which has helped over 200 people in scientific and engineering fields.

Cohen says: “The use of internships for returning professionals broadens the candidate pipeline to help solve a common problem. Despite the large supply of available candidates due to consistently high unemployment rates, employers are often unable to fill open positions because the “right” candidates cannot be found. Additionally, as employers prioritise the recruiting of high-calibre women for leadership roles at their firms, using internships to access the pool of women returning from career breaks increases the supply of candidates for such roles. Finally, companies with college internship programmes have the systems and structures already in place to add returning professional interns to the mix without significant additional costs.”

She is optimistic that the trend to support career re-entry for talented professionals will continue to grow. She states: “Employers are attracted to the relauncher pool because of its quality.” Most of these people are women who have taken a career break to care for children.

The study examines returning professional internship programmes in large and small companies, foundations, government agencies, non-profits, and academic institutions. It looks at arrangements that function as internship equivalents and at creative “one off” or customised, single opportunities that have been crafted for specific individuals. It identifies best practices from those programmes with strong track records, while examining the reasons why other programmes failed.

Cohen has several recommendations for employers based on the research. In an article in the Harvard Business Reviews, she gives some advice: keep returnship programmes small as it makes it easier for others to accept them and to build a successful track record; cultivate multiple champions of the programme so it doesn’t die when one person leaves; model the programme on existing internship programmes; introduce hiring managers to participants; identify good role models within the organisation who have thrived after taking a career break; ensure existing internship programmes include returnees; and partner with academic institutions offering short or long-term skills building courses for returnees.

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