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The Returnship: Breaking Back into Business

One of the great dilemmas for equality in Britain has been how people – usually women – can return to the workplace after a career break. Some women are put off from having children by the assumption that taking a long break will effectively end their career. Others have children but return to work as soon as they can to take advantage of the law providing them with a suitable alternative job within a year, so they miss out on seeing their children growing up.

The difficulty has always been to create a way that benefits both ‘returners’ and the companies that employ them. In America, an idea has been tested that may provide a solution. Called the ‘returnship’ it works on the basis that people wanting to return to their careers after long breaks need to break back into the job market just as new graduates and young people have to break into it in the first place.

Let’s imagine Lucy, a legal adviser at a large firm, takes a ten year career break to have children and stays at home to raise them while they are very young. She then wants to go back to her career. She goes to either her old company or a new one, and the company agrees to take her on for initially a six month ‘returnship’. Her position would probably be at a roughly similar level to the one she left, but for the first few months she is on a lower salary.

Lucy wins because she has found a way back into a highly competitive field after a long gap, but in a less pressurised way. She can now use this time to refresh her skills, learn the recent changes to the law and the job, and be in a good position to get a higher paid job at the end (either at that law firm or elsewhere). The firm wins because it gets a highly skilled professional person on a lower salary than normal who just needs some refreshing and updating.

The returnship was pioneered by Goldman Sachs back in 2008. The company observed that many professional women had difficulties returning to the workforce after taking time off to raise their children. The returnship program allowed them to test the waters, providing an environment to refresh and update their existing skills.

Most returnships last three to six months and are remunerated, though at a level similar to internships. They allow workers to tackle real projects, to gain the skills and confidence to get back into the workplace on a more permanent basis.

Critics of the returnship format suggest that such programmes are simply a way for companies to retain workers at low cost and don’t offer any real value to participants. There is also the suggestion that returnships distract participants because they allow them to take their focus off looking for a job while they go through the programme.

Despite these criticisms, the returnship format is becoming more popular. They are well suited to workers with a clear idea of what they want to achieve, and who see the programme as a step towards achieving their goals.

Returnships would not work in all careers, but the idea could have a role to play both in giving people who have been out of the workplace for several years more options and flexibility in their working lives, and in giving companies a cost-effective option to bring good talent into their workplaces.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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