The Comprehensive Guide to Returnships: What They Are and How to Secure One

Woman working at home

Since the beginning of the pandemic, almost two million women have exited the labor force; many of whom left formal employment to care either for their children or other family members. When and if these women decide to return to work, a potentially significant employment gap on their resume could make securing a job more difficult . This “she-cession,” as it has been called, could result in serious, long-lasting effects on gender equity in the workplace. So, what can be done? 

Returnships offer a potential solution — these full-time, paid internships are designed to help springboard adult professionals who have been out of the workforce for a year or longer. While returnships aren’t a new phenomenon, more and more companies have embraced them in recent years.

Read on as we dive into the world of returnships to explore what they are, how they work, how to land one, and a list of companies currently offering returnships. 

What Is a Returnship?

Returnships are short-term engagements for professionals who want to re-enter the workforce after an extended period of time. Unlike internship applicants, returnship candidates are usually more experienced professionals with significant work history. They may need to reacquaint themselves with changes in their field, or with new technology, but they have a strong working knowledge of their discipline, and are usually paid for their time as a result.

Additional resources:

How Do Returnships Work?

Returnships are typically geared toward professionals who have been out of the workforce for at least two years and have five or more years of professional experience. However, due to the pandemic’s unexpected impact on the global workforce, some employers have relaxed these timeframes. 

During the application period, returnship program candidates are asked to submit an application, participate in an interview process, and may also be asked to authorize a background verification process prior to the application deadline. 

Once selected, a returnship participant can expect their program to run for two or three months, with some returnships running up to six months. During that time, participants receive a goal, accomplishment, and/or skill agenda that becomes increasingly more challenging as the returnship progresses. This allows returning professionals to build their confidence in new skills while the company becomes more familiar with their abilities. 

Returnship alumni often compare their experience with a valuable boot camp education, both of which offer participants opportunities for immersion in popular communication applications (e.g., chat systems) or new ways of working with collaborative software. They also benefit from experiencing current work culture and processes now used in the field, as well as networking opportunities with colleagues. Many returnships also provide coaching and mentoring for participants to better acclimate back into the workforce.

Returnships can lead to employment opportunities, as some employers hire participants at the end of the program. This not only supports returnship participants’ professional growth, but also helps employers gain qualified employees already familiar with the organization.

Additional resources:

How to Address Employment Gaps 

After taking a break from the workplace, it can be hard to know how to address gaps in your resume. Here are some tips on how to make the right impression.

In Your Resume

  • Indicate pandemic-related employment gaps specifically (e.g., “Pandemic-related break March 2020 – present).
  • List any skills you developed during the gap (e.g., any online classes attended, volunteer work and associated skills).
  • If you’ve been employed since a gap that spanned a few months, consider framing previous employment in years rather than years and months (e.g., 2018 – 2020).
  • Use your cover letter to further address any employment gaps (e.g., “It was necessary for me to take time away from my career to care for my mother. We have since found a full-time care provider, and I’m looking forward to leveraging my skills to …”).

In an Interview

  • Be ready: Questions about your employment gap will come up, so practice your answer over and over again — practice it until it’s second nature. This way, even if you get nervous, your mental muscle memory will kick in and you’ll sail through your answer.
  • Be honest: Whether your break was a layoff or pandemic-related, simply explain why it occurred (e.g., “My company experienced financial hardship during the pandemic and was forced to lay off staff members, myself included.”) Follow that statement with a statement about your eagerness to return to the workforce and how you can add value to this specific employer’s organization. Then, be silent. This will give the interviewer time to process your answer and respond.
  • Be professional: The interview is not the time to overshare, as it could result in an uncomfortable dynamic with your interviewer. Simply deliver your practiced answer (e.g., “During the pandemic my children were required to attend school remotely and it was necessary for me to take time to help them with the adjustment and continue their education.”) without going into any detail that could elicit negative emotions or distract you from the task at hand.
  • Be calm and confident: While it may not seem like it, your interviewer has probably spoken with many people who have timeline gaps in their work history. The key is how you address the gap: answer calmly and confidently, maintaining eye contact with the person you’re speaking to. 

Tips For Securing a Returnship

Strategy is crucial when it comes to researching, applying for, and securing a returnship. There is a lot of competition out there, so it’s important to increase your chances right off the bat. 

Here are 12 tips to help you get started:

Search Tips

  • Identify your unique strengths: What skills or background make you stand out? Having experience in a unique niche or familiarity with unusual technology can make the difference between being seen and being overlooked. Make a list of your unique skills, then start researching returnships seeking those skills to increase your chances.
  • Use your network: Returnships aren’t always advertised to the public, especially when it comes to smaller companies. Contact former colleagues and friends, tap your LinkedIn network, check with your book club friends, or even talk with your small group at church — everyone! Asking for recommendations and guidance on returnships keeps your network engaged in your search and can prompt them to suggest opportunities you may not have considered.
  • Try something new: Don’t limit yourself to fields or industries you’ve worked in previously. Instead, stay open to as many types of returnships as possible. Many skills translate easily and, as a result, many industries are searching for non-traditional hires to diversify their workforce (e.g., finance companies looking for employees with a scientific mindset, automotive manufacturers looking for executives with high emotional IQ).
  • Emphasize soft skills: One of the benefits of experience is the development of soft skills (e.g., communication, resourcefulness, resilience). Be sure to highlight these skills with examples as you craft your cover letter or resume, and in interviews.
  • Call your headhunter: Have you used a headhunter in the past? Call them now. Headhunters often have inside information on client employment programs and initiatives. And, if you have an existing relationship with them, chances are good that they’ll recommend you first, as opposed to searching for other candidates. 
  • Consider an agency recruiter:  Recruiting agencies are organizations that work with companies to source candidates for their returnships, and often have established relationships with many companies. Prior to introducing you to companies, the agency will vet and interview you; guiding you toward returnships for which you are best suited and that align best with your personal goals.
  • DIY a returnship: Have a great idea that would benefit an organization? Do you offer skills that are uniquely valuable to a local company? Why not approach the company about creating a returnship engagement? Write up a proposal including the experience or skills you have, how they will solve a problem/take advantage of an opportunity for the company, include an estimate of the incremental value/reduced loss vs. the cost of your returnship, and set a meeting to pitch your idea.

Resume Tips

  • Check for typos: Typos and misspellings can do more damage than you might realize. Take the time to proofread your resume after every change or version update you complete.
  • Keep it short and clean:  Avoid adding photos, your physical address, or an objective statement. Instead, maximize the space to highlight key points on your resume.
  • Consider a functional vs. chronological resume: Have a lot of experience? Consider using the top of your resume to highlight skill sets that are directly applicable to the returnship, followed by a list of positions held, in years, toward the bottom.
  • Version, version, version: It is so important to version your cover letter and resume for each returnship opportunity. Doing proper research on both the company and returnship will help you tailor the functional skill sets you possess and determine the order you present them in. 
  • Keywords: Be sure to include the keywords (e.g., the right names for specific skills, experiences) in your resume that the returnship recruiter is likely searching for. This is very important as most companies run resumes through analysis software to rank or discard them before a human being reviews them.

Employers Who Offer Returnships

While many employers have offered workplace reentry programs for some time, returnships have become much more prevalent in the past few years. And, with the recent impact of the pandemic, companies are more invested than ever in bringing back experienced, skilled talent.

Here you can find a variety of returnships listed alphabetically by company:

Here is a list of returnships employers have created specifically for women:

As the economy begins to recover due to the availability of COVID-19 vaccines and the relaxation of lockdown restrictions, it is critical that all people are given the opportunity to return to work in a way that acknowledges the ongoing challenges created by the pandemic. And, as the traditional workplace is being reconsidered, there is a unique opportunity to reshape it to accommodate all types of career paths in a way that welcomes back women and other individuals who have been disproportionately disenfranchised.

Disclaimer

The inclusion of these resources is for educational purposes only and does not constitute an endorsement by UT Austin Boot Camps or The University of Texas at Austin. 

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