This is the first installment of a series where we look at words and concepts that define the modern workforce — for good or ill, sometimes a combination of both. Where did they come from, and are they here to stay? Most importantly, could they affect your search for career fulfillment?
What is it?
A returnship is a short-term position that’s intended to be a skills refresher or a re-acclimatization to a skilled career for “high potential” professionals who have been out of the labor force for a few years. While the word is a spinoff of internships, returnships usually pay decently, and are offered to people who were at mid-senior career level when they took temporary leave. The returnship often is geared toward training people in new technologies, skill sets or even an entirely new field. There’s often an intention on the company’s part to find an appropriate permanent position for a person who’s performed well in a returnship. However, certain companies only hire a small percentage of “returners” full-time.
First trademarked by Goldman-Sachs nearly a decade ago, the returnship has been since adopted by corporations in many sectors, from Cedars-Sinai to Campbell Soup Company to Intuit. Many tech and engineering companies are creating returnships with specialized tech skill-building as part of a gender-equality push. Though the first companies to offer returnships developed the programs internally, there are now organizations such as the non-profit Path Forward, that work with companies to develop, implement, and bring in candidates for ongoing returnship programs. In 2017, UK prime minister Theresa May announced a £5 million budgetary commitment for a government-backed “returnship” initiative.
Externship, internship, re-entry
The positive buzz
Proponents of these types of programs say it gives people who took time off to care for family an expeditious, supportive on-ramp back into the workplace. Not only do returnships put people back into professional environments at the mid-high level, they also provide intensive training in areas that may have changed significantly over the past few years. For fields like computer programming and marketing, where it’s necessary to be learning new tools and skills weekly, a returnship is a paid opportunity to get valuable training.
Another benefit of the returnship is that it helps returners bridge the psychological gap from being unemployed to employed. There’s a well known rule of job-hunting that dictates, you should never send a resume that shows a long recent unemployed gap, even if it was to care for a loved one. This is unfair and completely not practical, but as long as recruiters and career experts keep making it a cardinal rule, people will continue to have anxiety around it. Returnships help them prove not just that they’re high-potential or formerly valueable, but currently high-value talent.
Many people disagree with the mindset that assesses a person’s immediate value as an employee lower simply because they took time off to be a full-time caregiver. Some other countries allow returning employees to resume their exact position and pay grade after they’ve taken a few years maternity leave. Many people wish the U.S. would follow this example, instead of creating a culture where mothers are pushed off the career fast track if they want to raise a family. They see returnships as exploitative and belittling — especially programs like the original at Goldman-Sachs, that offered positions to less than 1% of the returners.
Who should look into it?
Though the returnship model certainly has its flaws, a pragmatist looking at current American corporate culture would say that it’s the best chance for someone to reclaim mid-career status with any view of the executive track after taking several years off. There are other ways, like freelancing or retraining on one’s own dime or hiring a career coach to create an amazing sales pitch of a CV. But for people who ultimately want stability, whose careers were impressive before the break, and who would prefer a streamlined transition where no “fudging” of accomplishments is necessary, a returnship at a blue chip company could very well be the right move.