From Desk to Diapers and Back Again: The Rise of Return-to-Work Internships

Excerpt from “Work PAUSE Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career” by Lisen Stromberg (January 2017).

The main auditorium at Columbia University was buzzing with excitement. The audience included MBAs, JDs, Ph.D.s, and others with equally impressive credentials and concomitant work experience. They represented a cross segment of some of the highest-caliber talent available. You would have thought the 600 women (and handful of men) in attendance were at the height of their careers. Instead, the packed room was filled with people who were desperately trying to unlock the secrets of how to relaunch their professional lives after stepping back to focus on their families.

Attendees had come in from all over the country to participate in the 2015 iRelaunch Conference, yet another sold-out event hosted by the leading company dedicated to helping those who take a career break to return to the paid workforce. I was invited to moderate a panel with four women who had left illustrious careers in the financial services industry, took significant pauses, and then relaunched to great success.

Panelist Andrea Chermayeff was out of the paid workforce for 15 years and is now vice president of Asset Management at JPMorgan Chase & Co. When I asked how her colleagues viewed her extended break, Andrea laughed, “It’s funny. I don’t think most of them even know I was out of the workforce at all, let alone for a decade and a half.”

How did she get back on track after all of those years? She, like the other panelists, had participated in a return-to-work internship. These short-term training programs are targeted to mid-career professionals who want to onramp after a career pause. While not promised a job, many who participate are offered a full-time position after the end of their “returnship.” These efforts offer relaunching women the chance to build their confidence and revamp their skills while employers get the chance to vet highly qualified, but sidelined talent.

Consider the experience of panelist Judith Galvin Casey. She started her career at Arthur Andersen and then went on to get an MBA from Duke University. She joined JPMorgan Chase as an associate after business school and worked her way up to vice president in the corporate finance department. She got recruited by a small capital bond insurer, where she spent six years managing $4 billion in assets as vice president of risk management. Then, like so many high-potential women, Judy paused to focus on her family.

Eleven years later, she knew it was time to go back to the paid workforce. But Judy had no idea how she was going to get “back on track.” Lucky for her, global banking firm Morgan Stanley had launched its return-to-work paid internship specifically targeted to women who had paused their careers and who were ready to relaunch.

“I was lucky to have joined their second New York-based class in 2015,” Judy told the audience. “We spent 12 weeks in an intensive internship program, directly supporting a business unit, building our skills, and getting reacquainted with the work world. It was a dream come true.” At the end of the program, she was able to land a full-time position in the same group in which she interned. Today, Judy is a vice president in wealth management at the firm and believes, now that her children are teenagers, her “second” career is even more promising than her first.

“I don’t have the same distractions that parents of young children have and, as a result, feel much more engaged and able to perform at my peak,” she said.

While return-to-work internships have been alive and well in the financial services industry for a number of years, they now are spreading to other industries as well, and for good reason. With 2.3 million college-educated women pausing their careers each year, the vast majority of whom plan to relaunch at some point in the future, support to help them get back on track makes smart business sense. Companies increasingly are recognizing that gender diverse workforces are good for the bottom line and, as a result, they are eager to hire high-caliber female talent. However, the pipeline for that talent pool has been decimated by women who leave to focus on the needs of their families. Return-to-work internships provide an obvious solution for both the individual and the company.

In 2016, PayPal introduced its Recharge Program, a 20-week paid internship. Their inaugural class included eight women and one man who stepped away from the paid workforce from two to 20 years.

The participants are treated like full-time employees, starting their first day with company-issued laptops, desks, and badges. At the end of the Recharge return-to-work internship, PayPal expects to offer each trainee a full-time job.

“It’s such an obvious recruiting tool,” said Thao Smith, director of the Recharge Program. “We get smart, eager, experienced employees, and they get the training they need to get up to speed and be able to reignite their careers.”

PayPal is a member of a consortium of tech companies that are piloting mid-career internship programs as part of Path Forward, a nonprofit spin-off of Return Path, a New York-based software company. It had launched its own return-to-work program in 2015 to such great success Return Path wanted to create a way for other companies to get involved. Path Forward now has 20 technology companies piloting programs with five to 20 interns each. The companies don’t guarantee employment, but they anticipate hiring around 80 percent of the cohort.

“We talk about wanting to solve the pipeline problem for women in tech,” said Tami Forman, executive director of Path Forward. “What better way to solve it than to find talented employees who, with just a little bit of help, can hit the deck running.”

In 2016, GTB broke new ground in the advertising industry by launching a formal 10-week paid “returnship” program for women who have cycled out of the workforce for more than two years. The goal, according to Traci Armstrong, senior vice president, global director of Talent Acquisition, at GTB, is “to eliminate the negative consequences of a resume gap by providing an on-ramp back into the ad world.”

Not all companies are ready to commit to a formalized program, but according to Penny Locey, vice president of career placement firm Keystone Associates, “more and more companies are willing to set up a short-term consulting project offering potential employees who have been out of the paid workforce the chance to get their feet wet. It’s the perfect ‘try and buy’ strategy.”

Bob Plaschke, CEO of Sonim Technologies, has taken this strategy to heart. “I heard the mother of one of my son’s friends was interested in returning to work. She’d been an active volunteer in our community and I knew she was more than qualified. So I reached out and offered her an internship,” he said. “I’ll never forget the first day she showed up. She had a huge box with her. Turned out she didn’t have a laptop, so she brought her desktop computer. She told me she wanted to be productive and knew the only way to do that was to have all of the tools necessary. I wish all of my 25-year-old new hires had that level of commitment!”

As more and more companies across industries look to hire highly qualified women to fill their leaky pipeline of female talent, we are likely to see more and more return-to-work internships, whether through a formalized program or on an ad hoc basis. As Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and founder of iRelaunch told the audience at the Columbia University auditorium, “The good news is that forward-looking companies are realizing the power of your untapped potential and, as a result, we are seeing an explosion of return-to-work internships across many industries. This is the beginning of a new era for women who are ready to relaunch and companies that are ready to benefit from your great talents.”

Excerpt from “Work PAUSE Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career” by Lisen Stromberg (January 2017).

Lisen Stromberg is CEO of PrismWork, a culture innovation consultancy, and author of “Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career.”


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