CXO

How "returnships" can get working mothers back into tech

Companies including Coursera, Demandbase, and GoDaddy recently began paid internship programs to help tech professionals who left their job to be a caregiver reenter the workforce.

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Image: iStockphoto/monkeybusinessimages

About 43% of women who have children leave their careers, at least for a while. In October, six tech companies launched "returnship" programs aimed to get mid-career professionals, who took time off to care for children or aging parents, back into the workplace.

The companies—Coursera, GoDaddy, Demandbase, CloudFlare, Zendesk, and Instacart—see the program as a way to tap new talent and diversify their workforces.

Some 31% of highly-qualified women voluntarily leave their jobs, for an average of 2.7 years, according to a 2010 study from the Center for Talent Innovation. And while about nine out of 10 women who left their jobs said they wanted to resume their careers, only 40% found full-time, mainstream work.

"Getting women back into the workforce is really hard, and even harder in tech," said Laura Sherbin, director of research at the Center for Talent Innovation and co-author of the study. "There is a lot of stigma attached to age, and the perception that if you've been out of the industry for two years, your skills are nearly obsolete."

The six companies are partnering with the nonprofit Path Forward to facilitate the 18-week paid returnships for the six companies. Path Forward, founded in 2014, has also partnered with PayPal, SendGrid, ReadyTalk, Moz, and others on developing returnships. To date, 80% of program participants were offered employment at the company where they interned, and 90% are now employed.

SEE: 10 tools to help your company improve diversity

One of the first companies to offer an internship for professionals returning to work after taking time off was Lehman Brothers—their Encore program launched in 2005, with the goal of bringing high-performing women (and eventually men) who left the industry back into the fray.

Many other banks, and soon other industries, followed suit. The term "returnship" was trademarked by Goldman Sachs in 2008, when the company started their own program in the Americas that has since spread globally in the company.

While many returnship programs experienced setbacks during the financial downturn of 2008, there are about 80 nationwide across all industries today, Sherbin said.

"Tech leaders need to understand that this is a vast, highly skilled talent pool to tap from, but it's incredibly and disappointingly underutilized," Sherbin said.

Increasing diversity

Marketing technology firm Demandbase is growing by about 25 employees per quarter, for a current total of 230 workers, according to Landon Pearson, vice president of human resources and talent acquisition at Demandbase. "When approached with an opportunity to have access to a larger, untapped, diverse candidate pool, it made all the sense in the world," Pearson said.

Path Forward promotes the position and the program, while Demandbase's team handles recruiting and hiring. Demandbase initially planned to offer three returnships, but the response was so great that they decided to offer five, across engineering, marketing, customer success, and other services.

"They won't be given menial tasks—the individuals we've hired are hopefully all going to end up as full time employees of Demandbase, and will perform the primary function of the job," Pearson said. The new positions begin at the end of October.

Eligible candidates had been out of the workforce for at least two years. "We want to be able to tap into the candidates having trouble getting their foot back into the door after taking a break," Pearson said.

Applicants were almost exclusively women who took time off to care for children, Pearson said. The pay will be between $25 and $30 an hour, which Path Forward suggests. If the interns are hired full time, they will be paid market value, Pearson said.

"Any time you can associate your company with programs such as this, it helps get the word out that diversity and inclusion are issues we care about and are serious about," Pearson said. "It's a competitive advantage."

Online education platform Coursera is offering returnship positions in back-end, front-end, full-stack, and mobile software engineering. "These unique internship opportunities give those wishing to return to the workforce a leg up in refreshing their skills, as well as bring to us, and other technology companies, fresh eyes and valuable experiences that can help us continue to expand, improve, and innovate for the future," said Lila Ibrahim, COO of Coursera.

"We live in a time where lifelong learning and upskilling are common in any career trajectory, and taking a break from work shouldn't keep anyone from having a fulfilling career when they're ready to come back," Ibrahim said.

Advice for tech companies

The success of a returnship program largely rests on two factors, Sherbin said: Non-stigmatization, and flexibility.

The word "internship" can sometimes have negative connotations, she said. "You don't want to play into the stigma that their skills are entirely obsolete," Sherbin said.

Flexibility for the returnship employees is key. "Certain returnship programs almost fail entirely because employees are asked to come into a very rigid work environment on day one, and hiring managers are not trained to have conversations about what work-life integration might look like," Sherbin said.

It's difficult to go from being a full-time caretaker to a full-time employee right away, she added. "Tech, of all industries, is one with an enormous amount of flexible working opportunities," Sherbin said. "You hate to see such rigidities put on work hours and time in the office."

Pearson recommends partnering with an experienced provider when getting started. "You have to go beyond posting your jobs on LinkedIn," Pearson said. "This is a powerful tool to help recruit and retain talent."

Part of the solution is also preventing women from leaving at all, Sherbin said. One strong example is Patagonia, which offers on-site childcare, and where 100% of female employees who had children in the past five years returned to work—compared to 79% nationally.

According to the Center for Talent Innovation, 93% of women who leave the workforce say they do not want to go back to their previous company. And more than half don't have a conversation with their manager before they announce they are leaving.

"With all of the conversation around bringing women back, we cannot forget to sustain the career momentum of women in the pipeline," Sherbin said.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. This month, Coursera, GoDaddy, Demandbase, CloudFlare, Zendesk, and Instacart all launched "returnships," or paid internships aimed at helping mid-career tech professionals who left work to be a caregiver for children or aging parents return to the field.
  2. Returnships can help tech companies tap a more diverse, qualified talent pool, experts say.
  3. There are now about 80 returnships in different industries nationwide.

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About

Alison DeNisco is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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