How returnship programs can bring women back to the office

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Women have left the labor force in staggering numbers, in large part due to pressures at home and work from the global pandemic. Here’s how returnship programs can help them reenter the workforce.

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It’s long been clear that COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the working world—ushering in a new age of remote (and now, hybrid) work, disrupting conferences and events, and creating challenges for brick-and-mortar operations. And it’s come to light that when it comes to the workplace, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionately tough impact on one group in particular: women. 

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SEE: Juggling remote work with kids’ education is a mammoth task. Here’s how employers can help (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Nearly 3 million women have left the workforce, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor. This is a meager 57% participation rate, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Because of the added pressures of childcare, eldercare, homeschooling and Zoom meetings—which, more often than not, fall to female members of the household—the findings aren’t a huge surprise. Recent data from the NWLC highlights the problem in stark terms: 570,000 moms have departed from the labor force over the past year

TechRepublic has written about the COVID-19 gender gap, and even the hidden benefits—some women are now taking the leap into pursuing entrepreneurship or self-employment—but the issue of bringing women back to the workforce should still be seen as a critical priority for CIOs.

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One way employers could address this pressing issue is through the concept of “returnship programs.”

Because of the pandemic, which has brought to light existing inequalities, many women have dropped out—but this doesn’t mean they don’t want to find a way back to work. The idea of the returnship program is tailored specifically for women who are interested in re-entering the workforce but need help doing so. 

According to a recent post from Deloitte, a paid returnship program, which lasts up to four months, is suited for employees who have been out of the workforce for at least a year. The sponsor offers an opportunity for training, mentoring and actual work experience, and can choose to hire the employee when the program is completed.

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SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Some companies have already begun offering these types of initiatives, with signs of success. T-Mobile, for instance, recently teamed up with reachHIRE for a TechX Returnship Program, for a six month stint, aiming to fill half a dozen engineering, project management and analyst roles. From more than 400 candidates, six “returners” were selected—chosen based on critical thinking skills—given a weeklong training and presented with difficult projects that would help them “build their professional network and build relevant technical skills and confidence,” according to Deloitte.

The result? All six “returners” scored full-time tech jobs, and T-Mobile launched its second returnship program.

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Deloitte started an Encore program for women in 2016 (before the global pandemic) and is now in the process of launching its fifth program, which has supported 51 women in reentering technology roles after being absent from the labor force for two years or more.

“We knew that there was a tremendous opportunity to bring employees back to the workforce that were really capable, successful and smart, but for any number of reasons—childcare, elder care, mental health—needed a break,” said Kristi Lamar, managing director of Deloitte U.S. CIO Program, Deloitte Consulting and is head of Deloitte’s Women in Tech program. “It’s hard to have that gap on your resume,” she continued. “But that blip doesn’t indicate your future performance.”

Encore stresses the importance of getting leadership on board who can help provide the necessary skills and support for returners, considering overall skills rather than focusing on tech skills, and building connections and partnerships within the group and in the community.

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Deloitte’s DEI in Tech survey revealed, unfortunately, that most execs did not have a similar program in place. However, it stands as an opportunity for growth, and companies can learn from these predecessors. 

“We saw what happened last March, and the beauty of the returnships is that they’re a safe way to raise your hand and say, ‘this isn’t working for me,'” Lamar said. “It’s a safe way to relaunch that career, and change it.”

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