Returnships Offer Employers Ways to Find Skilled Diverse Employees

Experienced professionals can showcase their talents after taking a career break

By Kathy Gurchiek Mar 9, 2018

BP, a global producer of oil and gas with operations in more than 70 countries, wanted to broaden its search for experienced, diverse employees.

"We want an inclusive work environment with different perspectives," said Brian Zellner, the U.S. downstream recruiting manager for the company's corporate functions, refineries and petrochemical sites.

As its HR department posted job openings and reviewed applicants, it faced "an endless challenge to continue to … [find] candidates who are different."   

The company met that challenge through a returnship program that Zellner created with Christine Taktajian, the U.S. downstream resourcing officer for BP. 

Sometimes called "re-entry internships," returnships are for experienced professionals who've taken time away from their careers. They help employers find experienced candidates who have voluntarily—or involuntarily—taken such a break and give them an opportunity to learn new skills and technologies and polish old skills. Returnships also open up a new talent resource where employers can find and groom new talent.

"People leave [an employer] for different reasons—some to care for aging parents, some because they want to go backpack around Europe" and BP does not decide what constitutes a career break and what does not, Zellner said.

Participants in BP's program were placed in HR, finance, strategy, and sales and marketing and were paid to work on projects that "add real, significant value to the organization," Zellner said.

Returnship workers are provided mentors and individual HR advisors. They also interact with senior leaders in and out of the office, such as having lunch with the vice president of HR and the chief operating officer or dinner with the senior vice president of sales.

They give presentations to leadership team members, including the chief financial officer, HR leaders and the vice president of strategy. They visit the trading floor and experience trading oil and gas commodities through a simulation exercise. Those working in retail interface with oil and gas dealers and distributors, gas stations and others.

The experience could lead to full-time hires. Two of the five participants in the inaugural program have been offered positions, and two others have extended their returnships until applicable positions open. A fifth decided four months into the program that she missed being at home with her young children and that returning to the workforce full time was not the right choice for her.

Companies Reach Out 

BP created its returnship program in partnership with The Mom Project, a Chicago-based digital platform that connects employers with accomplished, professional women across the U.S. looking for full-time or project-based work.

It's a talent pool that often is overlooked.

"So often, companies pass up highly qualified candidates simply because of a break in their resume," said Allison Robinson, founder and CEO of The Mom Project, in a news release.

She was on maternity leave from Procter & Gamble when she founded the company in 2015 "to bridge the gap between employers looking for top talent and the millions of educated and professionally accomplished mothers across the country looking for meaningful work."

Erika Jefferson found that a returnship was a good way for her to transition back into the workforce. She had nearly 20 years of experience in the oil and gas industry and was in a leadership position when the market crashed in 2008. Despite a promotion, she was laid off. She quickly landed another job, but layoffs hit there, too.

Jefferson spent the next several years establishing BWISE, a group for black women in science and engineering dedicated to addressing the lack of female leadership in the science, technology, engineering and math fields. Once her 501(c)(3) organization was growing and in good hands, she decided to return to the workforce full time.

A returnship in sales and marketing for BP's retail side is helping her do just that. She is developing skills different from her pre-layoff days, where her responsibilities included sales and business development, supply chains and operations.

"It was a great way to transition back into the workforce," she said. "I've come back to a world of cubicles. I never had a cubicle, I always had an office. … In our office [at BP], even our vice president sits right in front of us. There are no walls."

BP's first group of participants are all women, but men are welcome to apply, and the program has no age barriers, Zellner said.

"It's not just for those 40 and older. If [applicants] meet the criteria for the career break, we would consider them."

Goldman Sachs offers an eight-week paid returnship program, which it began in 2008 in the Americas. Today, there are participants in its offices in New York City; Dallas; Chicago; Salt Lake City; Irving, Texas; Hong Kong; and Bengaluru, India. The program is specifically designed for men and women ready to return to the workplace after an absence of two or more years. It can lead to a full-time position or simply provide a way for a participant to sharpen skills.

JP Morgan Chase & Co. started its Reentry Program in 2013 in New York City and now also offers it in anumber of its U.K. divisions. Its 14-week program is for people who had been at the vice president level and above who want to return to the workforce after a career break of two or more years.

Concord, Mass.-based reacHIRE works with corporate partners such as Fidelity Investments and Boston Scientific to place people in returnships. While men may apply for the returnships, women tend to be the company's primary clients, and most average a career break of six years, according to Addie Swartz, CEO.

Swartz founded the company one year after leaving her job as a principal at a consulting firm in Boston to care for her teenage daughter, who had been seriously injured in a car accident.

During her career break, Swartz met women like herself who faced significant obstacles in returning to their careers.

"Their skills were eclipsed by changes in the marketplace and advances in technology," she says on her company website. "Their references were out of date, and their professional confidence had eroded despite their significant past career achievements. From listening to their stories, I knew that when I returned to work I would return to something different."

For employers grappling with the so-called skills gap, the big question is how they can build tomorrow's workforce, Swartz said. She believes the answer is in creating career on-ramps for women—and men—who have taken career breaks.

Returnships are about "making sure those individuals are upskilled and supported so they can succeed in their assignments and move into other roles."

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