Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Returnships: what are they & where can you find them?

We're glad to see that the debate on UK gender equality is filtering down from board-level to mid-career, recognising the broader issues facing women in the corporate world ... including the difficulties for women returners of getting back into a corporate role after many years out. Last week Newton Investment CEO Helena Morrissey called for employers to develop 'returnships' to give women routes back into work after a career break.

So what is a returnship?

A returnship is a professional internship designed specifically for people (usually women) returning after an extended career break. It's a short-term position drawing on existing skills and experience, and may be supplemented with relevant training courses. It gives a chance for the returner to build their confidence and gain recent CV experience, while practically testing out the role and whether they want to return to a demanding corporate job*. From the employer's side, they have access to the skills of an experienced professional and a low-risk way of assessing the returner as a potential longer-term employee. 

Are they worth doing?
It seems like a great idea - does it work in practice? Some programmes have successful track records. Goldman Sachs in the US (which trademarked the term 'returnship') has been running a programme since 2008, initially in New York and also in India in 2014. It's for professionals looking to restart their careers after 2+ years out (average 6 years). The paid 10 week programme offers work experience in a variety of departments, with real business issues to work on, together with an induction and a range of courses such as self-promotion, influence and industry trends. Goldman state that around 50% of participants have gone on to full-time roles.

Another long-lasting returnship programme is in India, where since 2008 the congolomerate Tata Group have been running their Second Career Internships They offer a residential induction and 500 hours of flexitime projects spread over 6 months to professional women who have taken 1-8 year break. Tata states that the majority of participants have subsequently returned to the workforce.

Some other schemes have been more short-lived. Carol Fishman Cohen, in her 2012 HBR article "The 40 Year Old Intern" suggested several criteria that need to be in place for such a programme to work effectively, including having a strong champion and keeping it small. I'd also suggest ensuring there is a sufficient degree of flexibility in permanent roles available after the returnship.

Where can I find one? Any in the UK?
They're mainly in the US and India. In the UK, so far as we are aware, there are currently no returnships in this format. However there are other related initiatives. The Daphne Jackson Trust has sponsored a 2 year part-time return-to-work fellowship for SET returners since 1986. And although not specifically targeted at returners, Red Magazine has run paid month-long 'grown-up' internships at a number of companies since 2010 (ref Older & Wiser*).

Of course you could always apply for a regular internship, particularly if you're considering a new career (eg.Cancer Research UK state their unpaid 12 week internships are also aimed at mid-career changers). And we know a number of women who have set up their own informal returnships - we'll talk more about creating your own returnship in a future post.

We're excited by the concept and would love to encourage its development in the UK. Are you aware of any UK returnships (formal or informal)? Or any organisations looking to develop one? Let us know here or on twitter @womenreturners.

Update March 2014: Returnships are coming to the UK! Credit Suisse have launched their Real Returns programme and we've seen that Morgan Stanley is planning to set up a Return to Work Programme in London this year. We'll let you know as & when we hear about any other UK initiatives.

* click on these links for related previous posts

Further Reading
"Returning professional internships" iRelaunch research summary including link to Carol Fishman Cohen's 2012 Harvard Business Review article "The 40 Year Old Intern" 
"Goldman Sachs returnership provides opportunity to re-adjust to the workforce. Glass Hammer, 2011

Posted by Julianne

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