Going Back to Work? Look for Companies Offering a ‘Returnship’

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A thriving industry has sprung up around people 40-plus going back to work or switching careers. The newest wrinkle is something called a “returnship,” which is practiced at a handful of leading companies including Goldman Sachs and Sara Lee.

The term is a play on “internship” and has been trademarked by Goldman, a pioneer that began its program in 2008. Through returnship programs, mature workers who have been out of the game for more than two years get the chance to prove their value.

Returnships were designed with women in mind, as a means for bringing mothers back into the workforce after raising children. But men are eligible too. Candidates are invited to a trial period lasting a period of weeks or months. Like college-aged interns, they may earn little or no pay but get the chance to prove they have what it takes to be hired full-time.

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It’s a great deal for employers. As Carol Fishman Cohen writes in Harvard Business Review:

“Returning professionals offer enlightened employers a rare opportunity: They allow them to hire people who have a level of maturity and experience not found in younger recruits and who are at a life stage where parental leaves and spousal job relocations are most likely behind them. In short, these applicants are an excellent investment. Using a returnship program as a screening tool lets employers skim the top talent from this pool and then make ultimate hiring decisions on the basis of meaningful work samples.”

Working cheap or for free may not hold much appeal to folks who know they have a lot to offer. But after a years-long hiatus, this kind of tryout may be your best shot at landing a great job. One program in the UK hires 96% of participants. When Goldman launched its program, six of 11 participants landed full-time jobs.

Cohen is a co-founder of the return-to-work website irelaunch, which has published dozens of returnship testimonials. Most are from women who had real careers before leaving to raise children. After viewing a sampling, it seems to me that many of these women kept their hands in the workplace as consultants or part-timers, or at least kept up with their contacts, during the child-rearing years. That gave them an edge. Many have returned to work as freelancers or in a different or lesser role.

But there are more traditional successes too. As detailed in HBR, Kathy Bayert, 42, had been away from work for five years when Sara Lee hired her as a senior manager after a six-month paid assignment.

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The concept of a returnship is similar to what’s become known as an encore career, geared at 50-plus workers looking for a change of pace or bridge job to retirement. Encore careers are championed by AARP and other organizations like Encore.org, which also highlight the value of experience and maturity. Perhaps these groups should encourage big employers to start a formal “Encoreship” program geared at older workers.

Encore careers have drawbacks and may also require volunteer stints before landing the job you really want. Of 9 million Americans in an encore career about one in four report earning no money. Still, in a tough job market and at a time when many must work longer than they had figured, any program that opens a door has to be seen as a plus.