Many Happy Returns: How Employers Can Use Returnships to Bring Displaced Workers Back to the Labor Force

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic loosens its grip on the US employment market, millions of people who lost their job or otherwise left the workforce during the health crisis are struggling to find pathways back to work.
Women and older workers were among the groups hit inordinately hard by job loss during the crisis. Despite recent gains, women still lost 4.2 million net jobs between February 2020 and May 2021, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Meanwhile, The Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis projected last year that the pandemic could thrust as many as 4 million older workers into retirement before they were ready. All told, as of May 2021, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports there are still 7.6 million fewer jobs in the US than there were in February 2020.
Millions of willing and able people are seeking to reenter the workforce, and businesses can be part of the solution. Traditional hiring channels offer one way to help these displaced workers return to the labor force, but there are other, less conventional avenues worth considering, too — like the one my employer, Unanet, has decided to pursue.
As we considered ways the company could positively impact the communities we serve late last year, our senior director of talent, the company’s executive team, and I began to kick around the concept of a “returnship,” an internship-like program designed to help people return to the workforce after an extended hiatus. In a typical returnship, often lasting for a period of weeks or months, participants receive the training they need to either reenter a field in which they had prior experience or start working in a field that’s new to them. In many cases, participants who successfully complete the program are offered a full-time job offer.
Returnships are not unique to Unanet. In fact, they’ve been catching on across the business landscape, with dozens of companies in a wide range of industries offering return-to-work programs. Many see returnships as a win-win: People who participate gain a pathway back into the workforce, while companies that offer such programs can support their communities, diversify their workforces, tap an experienced but overlooked segment of the talent pool, and enhance the positive perception of their brands.
While Unanet is still relatively new to returnships, our experience thus far has taught us some important things about how to develop and launch a program successfully — things that could prove useful to organizations considering taking a similar route.
1. Be Strategic in Structuring the Program
Our plan at Unanet is to test the returnship waters with a one-person program. If that proves successful, we will expand it substantially. We carefully selected the team and position around which to build the initial program — a graphic design position within the marketing team — based on that team’s high level of enthusiasm for the program and the likelihood of success in that position.
We also did our due diligence, researching the program parameters other organizations use in their returnship programs and setting a few requirements to attract the types of candidates we sought. The posting for our initial position required candidates to have been out of the workforce for a minimum of 12 months, have an undergraduate degree from an accredited college or university, and have at least three years’ experience in graphic design or a related field. We also clearly spelled out in the posting what the program would entail: working with a mentor and a peer group, workshops on career-building skills (e.g., resumes, interviews), training on the latest graphic design tools, and hands-on design work to produce actual marketing materials.
2. Get Internal Buy-In From the Right People
Our first step in bringing a returnship to fruition was explaining to the executive team exactly what the program entails and why it would be a good fit for Unanet’s organizational culture. We explained the benefits of offering such a program, including the ability to hire talented people whose skill sets and diverse perspectives could make them unique assets to the company. We also highlighted the positive impact a returnship would likely have on talent acquisition and brand recognition.
After gauging the enthusiasm for the returnship program across the executive team, we identified marketing as the best fit for launching the program. That meant working closely with the leaders and members of that team, as well as the hiring department, to get them on board.
3. Manage Expectations
From the beginning, we wanted to ensure that all parties with a role in the program were on the same page regarding their expectations. We made sure members of the hiring and marketing teams understood onboarding, training, and other responsibilities relevant to the program. Once we selected a person for the program, we were clear in conveying our expectations for her and in understanding her own expectations for the experience.
4. Leverage Partners to Reach Candidates
The level of interest we received in our initial returnship position far surpassed our expectations, with hundreds of queries and dozens of highly qualified candidates. Much of the credit for that response goes to the organizations with which we are partnering on the program (Women in Technology, for example). Their networks, job fairs, and promotional support were instrumental to the recruiting effort.
5. Build a Feedback loop — and Flexibility — Into the Program
Multidirectional feedback is critical to the Unanet company culture, so we made a point of embedding multiple touchpoints and surveys throughout the 10-week program. These touchpoints served a dual purpose: The returnee could provide feedback on her experience, while her manager could offer performance feedback to the returnee along the way.
We intend to use that feedback to make any necessary adjustments to the program to maximize the benefits it’s providing to the returnee and the company, as well as to inform how we expand the program going forward. If we can help more talented people find their way back into the workforce and make Unanet a stronger company in the process, that’s a win for them and us.