Setting the Record Straight about "Returnships" - Get the Latest Numbers

The first big company "returnship*" programs started nearly a decade ago, but are only now catching on in larger numbers. Having been active in the career reentry space since I relaunched my own career at Bain Capital in 2001, I have the historical perspective to understand their origins and why there is now a frenzy of corporate activity focused on returning professional internships.  Recently there has been some confusion about the statistics on these programs and I want to set the record straight. 

“Returnship” program results are off the charts - 50% to 100% of women** going through these programs are getting hired, depending on the program and the year, and the more results we get as each returnship cohort completes, the more consistent these numbers are.

A twice-run study by Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s Center for Talent Innovation released in 2005 and 2010 looked at women on career break who wanted to return to work and how many were able to return to full time jobs. Recent references to these statistics misinterpreted them to be stats on returnships. However, in 2005 there were no major corporate paid reentry internship programs, and in 2010 there was only one. The general prospects of women returning to work after a career break should not be conflated with those of women who have returned through a formal reentry internship program. 

One of the most important initiatives we are working on at iRelaunch is the STEM Re-entry Task Force initiative we co-lead with the Society of Women Engineers, in which companies commit to piloting a paid reentry internship program for returning technical professionals. Some of the biggest companies in the world are involved, including IBM, GM, Northrop Grumman, Ford, and Johnson & Johnson. We will soon announce more Task Force companies, and we are already seeing the earliest launched programs expand domestically, internationally and across functional areas beyond tech.

By 1Q 2018, over 200 returning professionals will have participated in one of the Task Force programs, and on a weighted average basis, 89% have been hired to date. These are the real numbers about returnships. They are way better than the numbers about women returning to work after career breaks without the benefits of returnships. The two should never be confused. 

These programs are proliferating because they work. The caliber of the return-to-work pool is high, the work ethic and loyalty of the demographic is strong, and companies in the know want to make sure they are skimming the top candidates from this pool just like any other desirable hiring pool. We work directly with over 30 blue chip companies that offer these programs and we’ve been tracking these programs for nearly 10 years - since 2008.

At this point, we’ve identified over 70 companies around the world that run returnship programs. They are the best vehicle for companies to engage with “relaunchers” as we call them, for two main reasons: first, if a company attaches risk to hiring women after they have been out of the workforce for an extended period, internships lower the perceived risk because they allow the company to evaluate the person based on actual work instead of a series of interviews, and second, the company does not have to make the hiring decision until the internship period is over. Two good resources on this: my HBR article “The 40 Year-old Intern,” and my TED talk “How to get back to work after a career break." 

The day when women don’t feel compelled to take career breaks in the first place is the ideal. However, not only are we a long time from that moment, there are indicators that both women and men will be taking more career breaks going forward, not fewer. That’s why we think it is so important big companies have their own “returnship“ programs just like they have their own entry level internship programs.

Having one of these programs signals to a company’s youngest employees who are anticipating career breaks in greater numbers than we’ve ever seen before, that the company understands people go through life stages and that their career paths could include career breaks. The message goes to employees of all ages as well as the company’s own alumni on career break that the company has created a formal pathway back for those who choose to take time away from paid work. 

Career breaks are complicated. It’s hard to generalize about why women take them, as every person’s situation is unique. Career breaks are not going away and neither are returnships. 

*Note Goldman Sachs has trademarked “Returnship” as the name of their returning professional internship program. Although these programs are increasingly referred to as “returnships,” we tend to refer to them as “returning professional internships” because of the Goldman trademark.
**Men are eligible to apply for and participate in "returnship" programs.