Returnship Programs: Bridging the Gap Back to Work

Avr 4, 2024 | Employee Engagement, Professional Development

Returnship programs serve as a bridge for professionals to reenter the workforce after a career break. They help parents return to work after longer parental leaves, caregivers who stepped away from their careers to provide support for partners or family members, and those who left their professional roles for various personal reasons. By encouraging talented people to return to the workforce, returnships connect companies with capable talent ready to hit the ground running.

As such, returnship programs strengthen diversity in the workplace. In this article, we’ll explore what these programs entail, share success stories, and explain how to measure results.

Table of Contents

1. Understanding Returnship Programs

2. The Rise of Returnship Programs

3. Success Stories of Returnship Programs

4. Best Practices for Returnship Programs

5. Measuring the Success of Returnship Programs

Understanding Returnship Programs

A traditional internship is an entry-level experience—often unpaid—that prepares a person to begin working in their chosen field. Further, an internship may offer just a remote possibility of long-term employment.

In contrast, a returnship program facilitates a return to the workforce for an experienced professional. This typically provides a paid work opportunity that leads to permanent employment. In some cases, the new hire accepts a permanent position before beginning the returnship; in other cases, the job offer follows the training period if all goes well.

After a break of two or more years, a returnship helps a person brush up on skills and current knowledge in order to reenter the workforce at their previous level (or higher). By doing so, returnships ease the transition back to the workforce, priming returning employees for success.

A good returnship program identifies skill gaps and helps people upgrade their skill set. Plus, it helps them readjust to the workforce by learning about company culture and other aspects of contemporary work. Programs often last from 12–16 weeks, says the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

The Rise of Returnship Programs

An HR manager interviewing someone after a returnship program
Credit: Karolina Grabowska/ Pexels

“Women who have halted their careers are a huge pool of untapped talent. There are 2.6 million women who are not in the workforce, hold bachelor’s degrees, are between ages 25 and 54, and have children under age 18,” writes SHRM. “Eighty percent of those women are interested in returning to work.”

After the Great Resignation, companies have a particularly broad pool of talent to draw from. Both men and women have made career pauses for various reasons, and returnships offer a great way to draw them back.

Let’s discuss how key challenges of reentering the workforce have led to the rise of these programs. Then, we’ll examine how returnship programs benefit employers.

Challenges Faced by Returnees

Too often, people never attempt to return to the workforce because their skills have become outdated, especially in fast-changing fields like technology. Returnships help employees bridge the gap even in such fast-paced arenas. This also builds their confidence, priming them for advancement.

Although times are changing, returning employees may still face stereotypes about being less serious about their careers. But nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, returning employees tend to dive in with great enthusiasm and motivation to learn and excel. 

Shifts in workplace culture pose another challenge. Employees who have left after a long break may find the adjustment to remote work difficult, for instance. Adapting to new workplace norms, from communication during a business meeting to changing project timeframes, can also feel daunting. Returnship programs provide one-on-one guidance that anticipates and addresses these hurdles so they won’t become roadblocks. Through peer coaching and mentoring, returning employees can confidently navigate the potential minefield of challenges unscathed.

Benefits of Returnship Programs for Employers

In many cases, people returning to work after a career break have already amassed substantial knowledge and experience. Returnships can help companies find hidden gems before competitors do. Further, returnships can allow former employees to transition back into employment with your company. Let’s discuss the substantial benefits of these programs in more detail.

Exceptional Employees

“Return-to-work professionals are educated, have great work experience, offer a mature professionalism, and are at a relatively stable stage of life,” writes Carol Fishman Cohen, cofounder and CEO of iRelaunch, in Harvard Business Review. “Because they were employed in the past, they understand how to work in teams and with differing personalities, and they’ve navigated tight deadlines and high-pressure situations.”

Plus, she adds, companies can improve their diversity by offering such programs, as a high percentage of returning employees are women. Such programs have helped companies in STEM fields populate their higher-level tiers with qualified women.

Higher Revenue and Innovation

Organizations with strong gender diversity in their leadership ranks can see as much as 61% higher revenue growth, reports IBM. And 60% of these organizations say they experience greater innovation, while 73% say they have outstanding customer satisfaction.

Employee sentiment will also rise with the introduction of such programs, says Fishman Cohen. In turn, companies will strengthen their employer brand. This will aid in retention while drawing in talented new recruits.

Returnship programs can form an important part of a broader talent management strategy. Offering a clear way to return to work will help companies periodically replenish their talent as other employees depart or new roles open up. Plus, it will help you create a leadership pipeline filled with high-performing people.

Success Stories of Returnship Programs

LinkedIn offers a full six-month returnship program for employment in various engineering roles. Palo Alto Networks, Farmers Insurance, Visa, Equinix, and Tesla are just a few more examples of companies with strong returnship programs, particularly in tech and analytics roles. These companies have all partnered with the organization Women Back to Work to design strong returnship programs. Let’s look in more depth at a couple of success stories.


Recognizing that women often have trouble reentering the workforce at their previous level, IBM offers a Tech Re-entry Program. In 2016, they developed the program in cooperation with the Society of Women Engineers and iRelaunch, targeting roles like software developer, technical project manager, and data analyst. It spans a full six months, providing skill upgrades, credentials, and mentoring, all of which builds confidence. They began with two cohorts per year but now onboard participants to the program on an ongoing basis. 

For example, Neha Kulkarni had a 10-year career gap, IBM says. She hadn’t worked in tech since 2009, though she had taught as an instructor at a college, and she had difficulty getting any response to her applications. But in 2019, she joined IBM Canada through this program and now works in software development at their Lab in Toronto.


Sandra Norris had worked for a tech company in the UK before taking a 17-year career break to raise her child. When she wished to return to work, she completed a returnship with Dell. Now she works as a project manager for the company. She describes her returnship as “very comprehensive,” saying, “I had two mentors when I started at Dell: one local mentor who provided support with HR-related onboarding, and one who provided work-related support for me in my new role.” She’d meet with her primary mentor two or three times a week, and she’d meet at least once a week with her director. She underwent an individualized training program along with group trainings every two weeks.

Best Practices for Returnship Programs

A returning employee is being interviewed by an HR manager
Credit: cottonbro studio/ Pexels

Take these steps to ensure your returnship program helps returning employees excel.

  • Advertise widely on social media and a variety of job boards. Candidates may or may not be reading industry publications or talking with industry connections. Ask employees to tell friends who may qualify.
  • Provide mentoring and peer support. Connect employees with a “peer buddy” who can explain elements of workplace culture and communication. Give each returning employee a mentor who can help them grow and refine new skills as well.
  • Work with each participant to design an individualized growth plan. Talk in depth about their interests and the skills they need to cultivate, and set performance goals accordingly.
  • Create cohorts of returning employees, as Fishman Cohen advises. People will immediately begin to develop camaraderie and feel a sense of belonging as they return to work among peers. Together, they can take part in learning experiences and discussions.
  • As Indeed suggests, you can even create a returnship network within your organization. This will encourage people to continue building relationships and supporting one another.

Then, track the success of your program in the following ways.

Measuring the Success of Returnship Programs

Monitoring the success of your initiative will help you continuously enhance it. This will also make the business case for your investment, showing its ROI. Use these tactics to measure your results.

  • Assessing completion of learning modules. Look at participants’ effectiveness in completing these modules and applying new skills.
  • Gaining participant feedback. Ask them to complete periodic surveys to gather their input.
  • Administering self-evaluations. Ask participants to assess their own progress, challenges, and needs. Reassure them that you’ll use this data to support them and enhance the program, not to penalize them.
  • Gauging retention rates. Do most participants complete the program successfully? Do they stay with your company for a long period of time? And do they eventually move into higher-level positions in your organization? In a successful program, the answer to all three questions will be a resounding “yes.”
  • Conducting 360 reviews. After participants have been with your organization for several months or more, carry out 360 reviews. Do they score more highly than the typical employee who has been with your company for 3–6 months?

Based on the results of these assessments, adapt your program to better meet participants’ needs. For example, provide additional feedback and coaching if progress starts to plateau. By listening to employee input and adapting continuously, you’ll achieve greater results together.

Returnship programs play a key role in improving gender equity and diversity in the modern workplace. By thoughtfully implementing such initiatives, you’ll make great strides toward fostering an inclusive work environment that empowers innovation. Supporting capable candidates’ return to the workforce will help you cultivate an exceptional leadership pipeline along with diversity of thinking.

Learn how software can help you support returning employees (and everyone else)—demo our product.

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