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What Are Returnships and How Can They Support Your DEI Initiatives?

Public companies must now submit human capital metrics (including diversity initiatives) in annual reports, an obligation that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) mandated in 2020. The new rules have led to renewed interest in diversity recruiting and hiring, and companies are looking to HR and talent acquisition to lead these efforts.  

Many qualified candidates are struggling because they left the workforce for some time to raise children, take care of aging parents, and various other reasons. Most of these “lost candidates” are women, and innovative companies are thinking differently about reaching this large candidate segment and supporting their return to work. 

Studies show that companies with women in leadership positions see an increase in profitability. A 2021 study by Credit Suisse concluded that companies with 25% women in decision-making roles had a 4% higher average return on investment, and companies with 50% of women in senior leadership had a 10% higher cash flow return on investment.

The IBM Institute for Business Value reported that, since early 2020, five million women have been pushed from their jobs, and the female participation rate in the workforce has been the lowest since 1988. According to the same report, only 1 in 4 organizations make the advancement of women a top 10 priority. In a period when the pandemic has decimated many women’s careers, relying on conventional approaches won’t close the gender gap. 

Additionally, organizations that see gender parity as a strategic asset are more successful and outperform their competition on nearly every measure, from innovation to revenue growth to customer and employee satisfaction. 

What Are Returnships and How Do They Work?

Returnships are higher-level internships that provide a bridge to senior roles for experienced professionals who have taken an extended career break. They are professionally-paid short-term employment contracts, typically of 3-6 months, with a strong possibility of an ongoing role at the end of the program. 

In a 2021 podcast, Nickle LaMoreaux, SVP and CHRO for IBM (Episode 290: The Role of the CHRO and Gender Equality) talked about how IBM created a returnship program as a result of the “Pink Collar Recession” during the early days of the pandemic. 

“We need to make sure we’re focused on programs that can support, keep and bring more women into your workforce,” said LaMoreaux. “At IBM, 50% of our U.S. job openings don’t require a college degree. This allows us to open the aperture to candidates who can come into the workforce from all walks of life. This is important, particularly for women who might be thinking about changing careers or want to move into roles that have higher wage opportunities in the tech sector. We started apprenticeship programs so we can offer paid on the job training, and one of my favorite programs is our returnship program.”

What Do Returnship Programs Look Like?

IBM has a Tech Re-Entry Program, a six-month paid returnship for technical professionals who have been out of the workforce for 12 months or longer. So far, 99% of participants have been women. “At IBM, we saw almost a point and a half of growth in 2020 in the representation of women in our tech roles, and the re-entry program was key to that success,” said LaMoreaux. For 2021, we had twice the number of returners participating in the program. This is the right thing to do as an employer, but it also positively impacts the business bottom line.”

IBM isn’t alone in creating a returnship program – companies like HubspotGoldman SachsQualcommTexas Instruments, and Deloitte all have great examples of successful returnship models. Even LinkedIn has a paid technical apprenticeship program called REACH

In March 2022, LinkedIn also added the option to feature career breaks on your experience profile. This did two main things. First, it acknowledged that people who step away from their careers often learn skills that enhance their contribution when they return. Second, it took the pressure off of the job seeker. Embracing a person’s unique career path — whether by offering development opportunities, apprenticeships, or returnship programs — eases the way for talented people to return to the workforce.