How to find a return to work program after a career break

Professionals with career breaks of more than two years may be able to return to the workforce through increasingly popular returnship programs.
Coming back again.
Coming back again.
Photo: Spencer Platt (Getty Images)
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Thanks to the effects of covid-19 on the workforce, employers just aren’t as turned off by resume gaps as they were in the past. But when those gaps are longer than a few years, returning to the workforce can prove difficult. Not only are professionals who have taken a break less likely to receive interview requests than their peers without a gap, they also face the challenge of skills obsolescence, particularly in tech. And there’s a gender component, too: Many returning to the workforce are women who have taken a career break to be caregivers, and they face the bias that befalls many mothers, including the myth that they are less competent or committed to their work.

For those who are looking to reenter the workforce after taking time away, returnships—or paid programs that help experienced professionals who have taken a career break return to full-time work—can provide the runway they need.

There are more return to work programs out there than ever

The number of returnships in the US has more than doubled since 2016, and companies that offer them are growing the size and scope of their programs.

PepsiCo increased the size of its returnship cohorts more than twofold this year after a pilot in 2022, expanding the program to new cities. Heather Hoytink, president of PepsiCo Beverage North America’s South Division, says the goal is simple: To “give women caretakers a second chance at a rewarding career, which ultimately gives them the tools and resources to excel both in their professional and personal lives.”

T-Mobile, which brought in its first returners in 2019, recently expanded the cohort size from six to 20. “[We’ve] gained so many talented and diverse candidates through this program that we may not have had the opportunity to work with if it wasn’t for this type of initiative,” says Lindsay Gunderson, the company’s senior manager of career programs and recruiting.

Returnship programs aren’t about hand-holding. Christine Winston, the interim executive director at Path Forward, which helps employers create returnship programs, says that her organization’s audience has an average of eleven years of professional experience, but an average gap of six years. No one in these programs has lost their ability to be a high performer. “What we hear from folks who’ve been out longer is that they find the construct of this program and the support and the easing back into full-time to actually be quite comforting,” says Winston.

Qualifications for returnships vary by employer and by role, but most require returners to have been out of the paid workforce for at least two years. Some companies, following the labor force upsets during covid, have lowered that requirement to one year. Many require workers to have a minimum of years of relevant professional experience; it’s not uncommon to see programs that require at least five.

How to find a returnship program

Professionals looking to return to the workforce have a number of avenues to find—and be found by—employers offering returnships.

Market yourself as a returner. Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch, which works with employers to design and run their returnships, says promoting yourself as a returner can help recruiters find you. “Employers that run these programs are looking for people who have career breaks,” she says. “If you’re interested in these programs, you should call yourself out as having one and make it obvious on your resume.”

Fishman Cohen also recommends using the career break feature on LinkedIn that allows users to identify their breaks—and the reason, if they so choose, right alongside their professional experience.

Search for returnships on job boards and socials. Employers post openings on job boards, and using “returnship” as a keyword can help you find them. Employers also often market their return-to-work programs on social media. Search #returnship on LinkedIn, Instagram, and TikTok to surface openings and program roundups.

Contact a returnship partner. Organizations like Path Forward, iRelaunch, reacHIRE, and The Mom Project work with employers to design returnship programs. Check their sites for openings. Path Forward keeps a list of US-based returnship programs.

Don’t self-select out. Fishman Cohen advises returners to not opt out of the process because they held a part-time job or had some kind of entrepreneurial venture during their break. Apply anyway and “let the employer decide,” she says.

Be honest about your skills. Shruthi Lingarajegowda, who participated in GrubHub’s returnship program after a seven-year break, advises returners to be frank about what they need from the program. “Be transparent and honest about what your capability is,” she says. “That helped me so much. Sometimes I would hesitate and think, ‘I’m asking too much,’ but then I would say to myself, ‘you can never ask too much.’”

For many professionals exploring returnship programs, they may find a welcome difference in how they’re perceived by the interviewing company. Venus Senjam, a senior project manager and returnship alumna at energy company Schneider Electric, says she felt like the process proved she was more than her career gap.

“They gave me a chance to show that I’m more than the resume. I’m more what you see in the pen on the paper,” says Senjam. “They really pushed me, and they accepted me as I am.”