When returners get hired, companies get stronger

Use our Returnship Builder to create a program at your company.

Welcome to Path Forward's

Returnship Builder

Interested in understanding what returnship programs are, how they work, and how you can set up a program at your company? You’ve come to the right place! 

Path Forward’s Returnship Builder is your step-by-step guide to planning and running a returnship program. This tool is based on insights and best practices drawn from our work with hundreds of companies. 

Wherever you are in the process — whether you’re just learning about returnships, beginning to implement a program, or you’ve piloted a program and want to make improvements — we can help you take the next step.

Get started with the navigation on the left.

Part 1

Intro to Returnship Programs

What is a returnship program?

In a nutshell, returnships are supported hiring programs that offer a pathway for experienced professionals to return to the paid workforce after a career break. They bridge the gap between employers and highly qualified, yet often overlooked, talent.

Since returnships were first introduced in the mid-2000s, more than 250 companies have launched a program in the US, including about a third of the Fortune 100. Thanks to the success of existing programs, more companies are creating programs every year, fueled by a desire to attract new pools of talent and create a more diverse and equitable workforce.

Why do these programs exist?

Simply put, the size of the talent pool sitting on the sidelines of our economy is enormous, but so is the level of bias that people on career breaks face when they attempt to return to the paid workforce. Returnship programs provide a structure through which companies can welcome talent that they might not otherwise consider through traditional hiring processes.

How big is the opportunity? At any given time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are nearly 25 million people of prime working age (age 25-54) who are not participating in the paid workforce. The top reason they cite is family caregiving (44% or 10 million of them), and those caregivers are women by a ratio of 12:1. Given that most companies struggle with attracting, retaining, and advancing women in the workforce, finding a way to tap into this talent pool can be extremely beneficial.

When people seek to return to the paid workforce, they face two distinct biases: a bias around the gap in their work history and a bias related to the nature of their break. Research has shown that a job applicants’ chances of getting an interview drop off by nearly 50% after their employment gap extends beyond two years. The more startling research, however, found that applicants who shared that they were out of the workforce to care for their families were half as likely to get an interview compared to applicants who gave no reason for their break, even when their specific skills and experience and the length of their career break were identical.

What’s behind this bias? Perhaps employers disregard applicants with a career gap because they incorrectly believe that returners are a risky hire, that they may lack current or relevant skills, or that they will struggle to balance work and family and may leave the workforce again.

Returnships were created to address these misconceptions by creating an opportunity for this talent pool to prove employers wrong. The tens of thousands of returners in Path Forward’s community are educated, experienced, and highly motivated professionals who have often been active and learning during their time away from the paid workforce. When given the opportunity, they excel.

[Managers] were really amazed with the quality of [returners]. They don’t think there was a big gap in skills and they couldn’t really differentiate the returners from the others on the team. Overall, they were really happy with the talent pool.

— Minal,

Recruiter at VMware

The quality of candidates was extremely high. I wouldn't necessarily say I was surprised by that, but I didn’t know what to expect going in. In the normal recruitment processes, we often get applicants that look great on paper, but in an interview, you quickly realize that they don’t actually possess the skill set that you’re seeking. But every single candidate that came through the Return Ticket program had the core skill set that we were looking for.

— Chris,

Senior Manager at Expedia

Who are returners?

Returners are people who have taken time off from their careers and are seeking to re-enter the paid workforce. They are all ages, ethnicities, and gender identities. However, because prime working age women are 12x more likely to be out of the paid workforce than men, the pool of returning talent is largely women.

As with all groups of this size, the range in years of professional experience, length of career gap, and educational level is quite large. However, Path Forward has been collecting data from our community for nearly a decade and can share this average profile:

There are many reasons why people leave the workforce, including parenting, eldercare, other family caregiving, personal health (self-care), military service or spouse’s military service, relocation, and more. However, family caregiving is the #1 reason that prime-working age people aren’t participating in the paid workforce.

In terms of skill sets, there are returners who have worked in nearly every field. Not only do they bring with them their professional skills, but they often have strengths in soft skills such as project management, negotiation, conflict resolution, and more — all honed while on their breaks. Looking for more specifics on the talent pool? Meet some of the amazing talent that has come through returnship programs in recent years.

Top reasons your company should have a returnship program

Hopefully by now, you’re excited about the possibility of bringing a returnship program to your company. Here are our top 7 reasons why you should get started today:

1. Access to an untapped pool of talent. The hardest talent to hire is experienced talent, and a returnship program gives you access to a huge number of people who aren’t captured by your traditional hiring process

2. Find experienced pros with past experience and fresh perspectives. Returners are standout workers with high motivation. They average more than a decade of prior professional experience and hold in-demand degrees. Companies crave not just their technical skills, but also their soft skills — time management, attention to detail, and eagerness to learn.

3. Bolster workplace diversity. Women are 12 times more likely to put their careers on hold for caregiving reasons. Support your diversity goals by providing a new on-ramp for experienced female talent, along with workers of different ages, backgrounds, gender identities, and life perspectives.

4. Accelerate the pipeline of women for leadership positions. Help break down systemic barriers preventing highly talented women from advancing into leadership roles. Women represent nearly 60 percent of the US workforce but only hold 35 percent of senior leadership positions. Returnships bring in mid-level women and create a pipeline for future leadership.

5. Show your culture of support for working parents and other caregivers. A returnship program is ideal for organizations with a culture of inclusivity. Boost your employer brand and demonstrate that your company supports employees at all stages in their careers and lives.

6. Create lasting, positive change in how your teams think about talent. When you create space for non-traditional talent via your returnship program, you begin to change the way your company approaches hiring. These programs give you the opportunity to examine and modify your recruitment, onboarding, and learning and development practices, while also giving current team members new mentorship opportunities.

7. Boost employee engagement and retention. Across all of the companies we track, more than 80% of those who complete a returnship convert to full-time positions. They also feel a strong sense of loyalty to the companies that welcomed them back, with 90% of program graduates staying with the company for at least two years.

When asked what value Audible’s Next Chapter returnship program provides, SVP of Software Development, Michael Masiello, had this to say:

Just being able to bring in strong talent with a diversity of experience. If you are trying to make products for the world, it’s better if your team is like the world. And the Next Chapter program has helped us put folks on the team who have great experience, to help us build up a diverse workforce that’s engaged and at a senior level.”

What's involved in running a program?

Now that you’re sold on the concept of launching a program, you’re probably wondering how much work is involved and what this might cost.

Dedicated management team

Establishing a program does take some time and thought, and will require a team to structure and execute on the program. We’ll walk you through the steps in this guide, but in general, you’ll need a group of people that includes:

  • Program Manager: Someone to lead the effort, usually from talent acquisition or HR.
  • Recruiters: To screen applicants
  • Hiring managers: To assess applicants and provide mentorship for hires
  • Mentors and buddies: Often members of the returner’s team or employees involved in a women or parenting affinity group or ERG
  • Optionally, Learning & Development: To provide trainings for the returners you hire

The good news is that very little of this work is incremental. Because you’ll be dedicating existing headcount to this program (more on that later), your recruiters and hiring managers would be going through a screening and hiring process anyway. Through this program, they’re simply looking at a different talent pool. Also, hiring managers and L&D teams generally support every new hire. Here, they will simply be doing it with a slightly different lens applied to the needs of returners. In terms of mentors and buddies, these programs actually provide positive opportunities for team members to act as members and for members of affinity groups to engage in meaningful ways that build their community.

The added effort falls primarily to the Program Manager, who will need to structure the program, enlist hiring teams, and think through onboarding and support for the returners you will hire. To help minimize the lift, we have advice, best practices, and tools related to all of those efforts in this guide.

Hard costs

Launching a program doesn’t need to cost you anything beyond your team’s time. However, if you have a less established employer brand or you’re planning to recruit for unusual or typically hard-to-fill roles via your program, you may find that you need assistance with sourcing candidates. If that’s the case, you may want to allocate some funds for recruitment marketing. (We have some recommendations on where to go for this in Part 3.)

Hallmarks of a great program

Over time, we’ve seen some programs grow and thrive while others struggle to take off. We’ve found that the successful programs all have some characteristics in common. As you craft your program, consider these five essential elements to ensure your returnship program flourishes:

Executive buy-in

Support from leadership sets the tone that this program is important to the company and ensures it will get the necessary attention and resources. It’s also a clear signal of your organization’s dedication to inclusion and to fostering a culture that is sincerely committed to finding and supporting diverse talent. In fact, it can be an integral component of your talent strategy and have a measurable impact on your talent acquisition, diversity, and retention goals.

Dedicated headcount

Allocating dedicated headcount specifically for your returnship positions is important for two reasons. First, it ensures that returners are not competing with the general pool of job applicants. (Based on the research we shared earlier, we already know how that ends.) And, second, having headcount tied to the program enables future conversions of successful returners. Given that about 80% of returnship candidates are offered full-time employment at the conclusion of the program, you don’t want to find yourself in the position of having a great returner but not being able to hire them full-time due to headcount limitations.

Inclusive recruitment practices

The programs that have had the smoothest recruitment and have been able to scale are at companies where recruiters and hiring managers embrace the idea of thinking differently about the types of talent that can be successful on their teams. At Path Forward, we like to refer to this mindset shift as “screening in vs. screening out.” These companies have tailored their recruitment processes in ways that allow them to better understand and appreciate the skills and aptitude of candidates with career breaks. In Part 3, we’ll share steps you can take to make your recruitment process more inclusive.

Comprehensive support system

The best returnship programs provide a comprehensive support system for the participants as they make their transition. This can range from mentorship and coaching to networking opportunities and tailored training sessions. (We’ll share more on creating a supportive onboarding experience in Part 4.) The goal is to help the returners not just reintegrate into the workforce and your company culture, but to thrive in their new roles.

Feedback mechanisms

Feedback is critical in two ways. First, a frequent feedback loop between the returners and their managers leads to better outcomes. Therefore, involving hiring managers who are committed to giving regular feedback is essential to the success of the program. Second, feedback on how the program operates — from returners, managers, recruiters, and mentors — is vital to understanding how the program can be improved and refined over time.

Downloadable Tools

These downloadable tools will help you get started with your returnship program. The “Why Returnships” PowerPoint will give you everything you need to pitch a returnship program to your leadership. We’ve also provided a recording of Path Forward staff delivering this pitch to help you prepare. And finally, download our one-page summary of the benefits of returnships to provide a quick overview to anyone who needs it.

Part 2

Structuring Your Program and Enrolling Teams

In this section, we’ll walk you through the building blocks of a great program, and help you make informed choices about how you structure your program to meet your company’s unique needs, operations, and culture. Plus we’ll give you the tools to educate your hiring teams and get them on board to participate in the program.

Choose your structure

At Path Forward, we’ve worked with hundreds of companies to help them structure programs, and we also track the structure and requirements of every returnship program in the U.S. In this section, we’ll share both best practices and data that will make your choices on how to structure your program both informed and easy.

Hiring model

Today, more than 80% of the returnship programs offered in the US operate on a temp-to-perm model. This means that returners are hired as temporary employees for the duration of the program, and are then considered for conversion into full-time positions at the conclusion of the program. The remaining programs are direct hire programs, in which returners are hired into full-time roles from day one. 

Which model should you use? There are pros and cons to each:

Temp to perm

Direct hire model

 Pros  Pros
  • Provides both returner and employer a trial period before making a full commitment
  • Perceived as lower risk by hiring managers
  • Gives the returner a defined period of ramp up and transition support
  • Signals company belief in talent pool and lack of bias
  • Eliminates conversion anxiety present in temp to perm model
 Cons  Cons
  • Increased anxiety around conversion among program participants
  • Changes in headcount plans can impact program success metrics
  • Managers may be more reluctant to participate
  • Often leads to less structured transition support for returners

Remember that you can adjust your model over time. It is not uncommon for companies to pilot programs using the temp-to-perm model and then transition to a direct hire model once the program has an established track record. In fact, one Fortune 50 company now operates both models: a temp-to-perm program for new divisions piloting the program for the first time and a direct hire program for divisions that have been participating for years.

Hiring cadence

Based on our experience at Path Forward, we highly recommend that you pilot your program with a cohort of returners — a group that all start on or around the same hire date. While this may require a bit of extra coordination across teams, there are many benefits, both for you and the returners you hire. Your team is able to execute efficiently on a single round of recruitment, onboarding, and program support, and the returners get a community of support from others going through the same experience at the same time.

One of my favorite aspects of the returnship was my cohort. Our group attended everything together and the program did a good job of helping us connect with each other. Since our cohort was spread throughout the organization, it gave me a chance to meet people who were in marketing, software development, and more. Even now that the returnship is done, our cohort still meets virtually for a coffee break to discuss work and life. Not only that, but we actually reached out to and have built relationships with the past cohorts as well. I continue to learn from and be inspired by these groups.

— Sherri,

returner at Trimble

We recognize that for smaller companies or those that aren’t hiring much, it may not be possible to hire a group of returners. If that’s the case for you, consider a rolling hire program. In this model, you open up new opportunities for returners at varying times during the year as headcount becomes available. 

But beware! While a rolling hire program gives you more headcount flexibility, it will be more work for your team as you execute on recruitment, support your hiring managers, and onboard and coordinate conversions for returners at different times. Also, without the urgency and intentionality of a cohort, these programs tend to result in lower hiring overall. For this reason, we reiterate our recommendation that you at least begin with the cohort model, even if it’s a small cohort.

Eligibility criteria

Returnships are aimed at people returning to the workforce from career breaks and seek to attract experienced talent, so you’ll want to create and promote specific eligibility requirements for your program that will help you achieve these goals. Consider three specific criteria:

1. Work Experience

To attract experienced talent, most returnship programs require a minimum number of years of experience. Looking at all of the programs in operation today, this requirement ranges from 2 to 7 years and the majority of programs (55%) require at least 5 years of experience. The requirement is usually applied consistently across all roles in the program, but around 20% of companies vary the experience required based on the individual role. 

2. Length of Career Break

The beauty of these programs is that they not only help overcome the bias around a career break, they actually require one! The range of requirements across existing programs is quite narrow, ranging from 6 months to 3 years of required gap. 

As you think about the requirement you want to set here, keep in mind the research that we shared in Part 1. Call-back rates drop off by 50% after a person’s break extends past two years. That’s why Path Forward recommends that you set this requirement at a minimum of two years, and why the vast majority of programs (70%) require a career break of at least 2 years

3. Reasons for the Break

These programs are intended to be as inclusive as possible, but you may want to specify or share some examples of the reasons that applicants may have had for taking their break. Keep in mind the study we shared in Part 1 that documented the specific bias against applicants who specify that their breaks were for caregiving. Since caregiving is the #1 reason that people of prime working age aren’t participating in the paid workforce, caregivers will be your largest pool of talent for the program. 

Examples of reasons for the break that you may choose to share include caregiving (childcare, eldercare), being a military spouse or “trailing spouse” (relocation/immigration for spouse’s career), self care, entrepreneurship, and others. Many programs specify that they are for returning “caregivers” — defined broadly and inclusively — while others are open to gaps for any reason.

Program length

When choosing the length of your program, particularly in the temp to perm model, ask yourself how long it usually takes any new hires at your company to get up to speed. 

At most companies, the first 90 days for any employee are considered a probationary period, so it’s not surprising that nearly all returnship programs are at least 12 weeks in length. 60% of all programs run between 12 and 16 weeks, with the most common length being 16 weeks. 

The programs that run longer — 6 months (19%) or 1 year (5%) — generally involve roles that take a longer time frame to get up to speed, not just for returners but for all new employees. And those that are shorter (and there are just a handful of them that run 8-10 weeks) generally focus on defined project-based work or short rotations.

Note for direct hire programs: Setting and communicating a program length is still important because it defines the period of time during which a returner can expect transition support and mentorship. In this case, a shorter program length may be appropriate.

When should you run your returnship program? At Path Forward, we’ve seen successful programs run at all times of year. The most important factor to consider is when your company typically sets and approves headcount budgets, since it’s critical that headcount is available both for initial hiring (in both the temp to perm and direct hire models) and for end-of-program conversions (in the temp to perm model.)

Some key questions to ask yourself are:

  • Are there times of year when the bandwidth of your managers and hiring teams tends to be low and they might not be able to support a returner? (e.g. the holidays)
  • Are there major projects that happen every year that returners could contribute to? 
  • Is there a time when hiring typically slows down?
  • When are budgets being discussed and what is the optimal returnship end date in order to facilitate conversions?

Here are some of the most common timelines to consider:

Spring cohort Fall cohort Winter cohort
Jan — Feb recruitment Jun — Aug recruitment Oct — Dec recruitment
Mar — Jun program in flight Sept — Dec program in flight Jan — Apr program in flight

In our experience, most companies avoid programs focused on the summer months, to avoid conflicts with undergraduate internship programs. Employers also tend to avoid programs that extend through the end-of-year holiday period, when disruptions and vacations may impact both the returner experience and the ability of the managers to work with and assess their returners.

Size of program

We’ve seen companies start with cohorts of anywhere from three to seventy returners, depending on the size of the company. However, most companies begin with a pilot cohort of 5-10 returners. This size is both manageable and gives you ample data to measure program results. Even if you’re a smaller company or hiring more slowly, try to have a minimum of three returners so that any one experience doesn’t unduly impact your assessment of the program.

After your pilot, don’t be surprised to see your program grow quickly! In our experience, once your teams have experienced first-hand the value that returners can deliver, you’ll have hiring managers knocking on your door to see how they can participate in the program.

Pay and benefits

First and foremost, returnships are paid positions. Returners will deliver significant value during their time with you and that value must be compensated. We often get questions about how to classify returners, whether or not to offer benefits during the program, and what pay is competitive. Most companies use the existing employee classifications they already have — e.g. consultant, temp, intern — for the returnship period, and the returners receive the benefits (if any) associated with those employee types. 

Overall, Path Forward recommends that you:

  • Set the pay for the returnship positions in line with the median salary range for the role. If the employee class you’re using for the returners is paid hourly, use the hourly equivalent.
  • Pay the same amount for all returnship positions in a given function who are at the same level.
  • Offer benefits whenever possible. Even if you can’t offer a whole benefits package, free or low-cost benefits will help you attract great returners and support their transition more fully
  • Re-evaluate pay and level when making a full-time job offer to your returners at the end of the program to ensure they match what you have learned during the program about the returner’s skills and experience.

Socialize the program and enroll teams

Now that you’ve determined how the program will be structured, you’ll need to share the benefits of the program with hiring teams and enlist specific managers to dedicate an open role or two to the program. While this may take some effort for your pilot program, rest assured that  managers who experience the benefits first-hand will be back for round two, as will many of their peers. 

That said, we can’t stress how important it is to find the right managers for your pilot program. These managers will understand that this is a mutually beneficial program, and that they will need to take some time to invest in their returners’ success. To recruit great hiring managers, look for these four traits:

 Passionate  Open-Minded
Committed to the returnship mission and willing to champion it Willing to consider ways to transfer existing skills and talents to new contexts and situations
 Growth Mindset  Creative Thinking
Willing to invest in the learning and development of oneself and others for mutual benefit Sees multiple ways to accomplish goals; values differing perspectives

Enrolling managers isn’t necessarily a hard sell. Though most returners have been outside the workforce for five or more years, remember they are motivated and experienced workers. With time to ramp up, many managers are surprised by the enthusiasm and productivity returners bring to their work.

The real value for a hiring manager is the quality of candidates and the support of the returnship program. My returner exceeded my expectations. She was excited about the opportunity to work for Dell and went above and beyond to make this a success. My team is stronger as a result.

— Jason,

hiring manager at Dell

We’ve made socializing the program easy for you. At the end of this section, you’ll find a customizable presentation that you can use to educate your hiring teams about the program and get them excited to participate.

Select roles

The roles you offer as part of your program should be mid-career level and aligned with the requirement for experience that you have set for the program overall. In general, most roles are appropriate for these programs. At Path Forward we’ve seen companies successfully fill roles ranging from human resources to finance to engineering. 

That said, if the role is challenging to fill in general, it will not be any easier through a returnship. Set yourself up for success by asking yourself these questions:

  • Is the role highly specialized, niche, or does it require extensive knowledge of cutting-edge technologies?
  • Is the role difficult to fill in a typical recruitment effort?
  • Is the role geographically targeted to a very small, non-major metro area?
  • Does the role require atypical hours (nights, weekends, etc.)?

If your answer to any of these questions is yes, we recommend looking for other roles for the program, especially for your pilot. For best results, encourage managers to look for roles that they are hiring for regularly and that draw on both hard and soft skills.

Downloadable Tools

We’ve presented you with lots of choices around program structure in this section. Download our decision guide to help organize your choices and get Path Forward’s recommendations. When you’re ready to start socializing the program and enlisting managers to participate, use our customizable introductory presentation and watch a recording of our staff delivering the presentation to help you prepare to present yourself.

Part 3

Marketing Your Program and Screening Returners

In this section, we’ll walk you through some best practices for announcing your program, getting your teams ready to interview, and finding great candidates.

Brand your program

Give your returnship program an official name as a way to build credibility and awareness, both internally and externally. When deciding on a name, consider something that conveys that the program is for people returning to the workforce. You might also create a page on your company’s careers site dedicated to the program. This page can give potential applicants more information about the structure and requirements of the program, insight into the application process and how to prepare, recruitment dates, and information about future programs, and down the line can showcase testimonials and success stories.

Here are a few of our favorite program names and program pages:

Create a welcoming job posting

The first step to attracting returners to your returnship program is to have job descriptions that are as clear and descriptive as possible. Add “Returnship” to the job title and include a header at the top of each job description that clearly states that the position is open only to those who are returning to the workforce after a career break. Also include any other eligibility criteria you set for your program (required experience, length of gap, etc.) in this header. 

Here are some other simple modifications you can make to make your job listings as “returner-friendly” as possible:

  • Drop the “senior” from the title if possible. By all means, continue to post more advanced roles, but based on feedback we’ve received, removing “senior” from the title while keeping all qualifications the same, yields more applications. 
  • Separate out the “nice to have” versus “must have” requirements. Whenever possible, try to keep the list of must-have requirements as short as possible. As you know, the majority of your applicants are likely to be women and research has shown that women are less likely to apply for jobs where they don’t meet 100% of the job requirements. Want to take a more direct approach? Add some language that specifically says, “Don’t meet 100% of the requirements? We encourage you to apply anyway.”
  • Emphasize the soft-skills or competencies that the team is looking for in the ideal candidate. Given that returners have past professional experience and have often developed their soft skills during their time out of the paid workforce, you’re likely to attract more candidates by mentioning these skills.

Insert your program specifics into this sample job description header.

The [program name] program at [Company] is a [length of program] paid returnship for experienced professionals returning to the workforce after taking time off for [reasons – e.g. caregiving]. The program is open to individuals who have at least [X] years of professional experience and have been out of the paid workforce for at least [X] years. If you meet these criteria, we welcome you to apply.

Evaluate your recruitment process

Before applications start rolling in, take a look at your current recruitment process and consider these two questions:

  1. How could this process be made easier or less intimidating for someone who’s been out of the workforce for a few years?
  2. Are all of these steps necessary for this program, knowing managers will have the returnship period to further evaluate the candidates’ skills before making a full-time job offer?

In our experience, the companies that have taken these questions to heart have had the most fruitful recruitment efforts. They have reduced the number of interviews, reduced the size of interview panels, and ensured that the interview panels reflect the diversity they’re looking for in the program. 

Concerned about how a lighter interview process would work for technical roles? We’ve included some best practices, including specific best practices for technical tests and interviews, in the downloadable tools at the end of this section.

Set the stage with recruiters and hiring panels

Before you start taking and reviewing applications, it’s important to prepare your team for how to effectively, and fairly, screen candidates. In the downloadable tools for this section, we’ve included a customizable presentation and video recording of an effective recruitment training. The most important aspects to cover are:

  • Unconscious biases about returners. We shared the research around these biases in Part 1 and now is the time to help your hiring panels recognize and address those biases so that they can fairly evaluate returnship applicants.
  • Program objectives. Make sure everyone involved understands why your company is offering this program, the eligibility criteria, the program goals, and their role in helping to achieve those goals.
  • Benefits and specific needs of returners. Use skills-based hiring approaches that focus on candidates’ relevant skills and experiences rather than gaps in their career history. You’re looking for attitude as well as aptitude.

You may also want to remind everyone that while your organization is evaluating the applicants, the applicants are also evaluating you. Your interactions with them will give them a glimpse into the company culture and help them decide if it’s the place for them. Taking time upfront to ensure everyone on the hiring team is up to speed on the program will help the process run smoothly and leave applicants feeling great about joining your company.

Source Candidates

When it comes to recruiting for a returnship program, you may need to adjust or add a few things to your usual playbook in order to get your roles in front of the right candidates. In this section, we’ll lay out the various ways to attract applicants.

Share the job posting widely

Hopefully you’ve followed our recommendations above and have added “Returnship” to the job title and a descriptive header to the job description. This will help returners differentiate between your regular roles and the roles that are meant for them (and hopefully cut down on the “noise” of non-returners applying to your returnship roles.) If you typically allow all of your jobs to feed out to LinkedIn, Indeed, or other job boards, do so with your returnship roles as well.

Feature the program on your careers site

Make a splash by adding a landing page for the program to your careers site. If that’s not possible, make sure the jobs are available and searchable on your careers site.

Announce on social media

Tout the program via your company’s social media accounts. Trust us, your Comms, DEI, and/or employer branding teams are eager to share initiatives like this! Once those posts are up, encourage everyone involved in the program to share them out with their networks as well.

Encourage internal referrals

Encourage employee referrals to the program by including an announcement in company-wide newsletters or other outreach. Everyone knows someone who has been on a career break so employees can be a great source of candidates. And after your pilot program is complete, don’t forget to ask your program alumni to tell their friends about subsequent cohorts.

Leverage LinkedIn

As you source applicants on LinkedIn, keep in mind that returners have been taught for years to hide their gaps in order to avoid bias. In recent years, LinkedIn introduced a new “career break” feature that allows members to call out their breaks, but this feature has yet to be adopted in any meaningful way. That said, if you have the LinkedIn recruiter tool, it’s worth a quick search to see if this feature yields any results.

Reach out to parenting and women's networks

Since so many returners are women returning from childcare, consider outreach to groups focused on parenting and women — both national and locally based on the location of your roles and offices. Many have communities on social media where you can share your opportunities.

Use specialized sites and job boards

If you have some budget to commit to your sourcing efforts, there are a number of organizations that target women, or more specifically those returning to the workforce, that offer either paid job boards or targeted marketing opportunities. These include Path Forward, iRelaunch, The Mom Project, reacHIRE, and Women Back to Work. (You can find more on the services available from Path Forward here.)

After your pilot program ends, consider pulling together a blog or success story that features a returner profile and perhaps some perspectives from the managers involved in the program. This kind of wrap-up will help with marketing for your next round of the program.

Screen applicants

It’s time to start reviewing applications! Remind your recruiters that it’s not always easy to spot a returner on paper. They’ve been told for years that they need to hide their gaps in order to get interviews, so that “Jane Doe Consulting” role at the top of their experience list may be freelance or part time. If you’re not sure and the candidate looks like a good fit, ask them to confirm that they meet the program criteria rather than passing them by. Remember, we are screening in vs. screening out. 

As you review applications, prioritize relevant skills, experience, and potential for growth over traditional career progression benchmarks. For a program like this, keep in mind that there is a lot to learn about a candidate from their unpaid work experience.

You can always build on an employee’s knowledge, but life experience can’t be taught. For instance, one of my returners had been an engineer, then took an eight-year career break. She took the time to raise her kids and do some teaching. So in addition to having the baseline technical knowledge to do well in her role, her career break gave her the maturity, emotional intelligence, and conflict-resolution skills that other candidates often lack.

— Trey,

Manager at Cloudflare

It’s also especially important for returnship applicants that you share upfront what the different steps in your interview process will be. In many cases, candidates may not have interviewed for years (e.g., a decade or more at their last job and then a five-year break) and anything you can do to help them prepare will lead to better outcomes.

Finally, as candidates progress through your interview process, remind the various panels and interviewers of everything you shared with them in the pre-screening training discussed above.

Make the offer

Make a formal, written offer as you do for all jobs. However, if you’re using the temp to perm model for your program, be sure to specify the length of the program, the method of pay during the program (hourly or salaried), the benefits available (if any), and that they may be considered for full-time employment at the end of the program. 

Be prepared for a few additional questions. For instance, candidates may want to know how their benefits or pay might change if they are offered a full time role at the end of the program. If possible, share general information on the types of benefits offered and the pay range for the full-time role. Remember that while you are evaluating them for fit, returners are also considering your company for (and hoping for) longer-term employment after the program ends.

Downloadable Tools

During this stage of program implementation, it is critical to get everyone who will be involved in screening and interviewing candidates aligned with your goals and process. Use our customizable presentation and sample video to train your team, and download our one-sheet on interview best practices to reinforce that message.

Part 4

Onboarding and Supporting Returners

Your returners are going to have new routines to learn, new skills to acquire, and new systems and structures to put into place. This can be both exciting and stressful. A little support during this time can go a long way in easing the transition and enabling your returners to succeed.

While onboarding and supporting your returners is a team effort, this section includes specific advice and next steps for how two different players on your returnship team — the program manager and your hiring managers — can have the biggest impact on the success of the program. For program managers, we’ll cover how you can build supportive programming to help returners make a smooth transition and integrate into company culture. For hiring managers, we’ll share tips to help guide communication and feedback to the returners at various stages of the program.

Let’s begin with the next steps for your Program Manager.

Build a programming calendar

Begin by creating a calendar of the returnship period. Make sure all of the usual onboarding activities for new employees are included, such as HR orientation, IT setup, etc. Then think about scheduling some opportunities for your returners to connect with one another, with your leadership, and with the organization at large. Based on our observation of hundreds of programs, these are the most popular returnship activities.

Host a welcome event

Celebrate the start of your program and give the returners a warm welcome with a get-together, whether formal or informal, that includes the returners, their managers, mentors, and core teams. If possible, do this during their first week and invite a senior leader who backed the program to attend and give opening remarks.

Foster cohort connections

Set up regular opportunities for your cohort to connect with one another, perhaps over coffee or lunch, and create channels (e.g. a dedicated Slack group) to stay in touch. Connecting with others who are going through the same experience at the same time is incredibly valuable for a returner because they can get emotional support and practical advice from people who truly understand. For subsequent cohorts, bring program graduates into the conversation as well, to share the challenges they faced and how they overcame them during their returnships.

Create a leadership speaker series

Invite leaders — especially female leaders — to come speak to the returners. Keep it simple by having them come in during times when you are already gathering the cohort, such as the coffees or lunches we suggested above. A speaker series is an excellent way to help returners learn about the organization and start to see the different career paths available to them in the future. It’s also a great opportunity to give your leadership more exposure to the amazing talent you’ve brought on through this program!

Leverage ERGs and company networking events

Encouraging returners to network within your company will help them learn as much as possible about the organization and increase their desire to stay long-term. To help foster this, invite them to access any affinity groups (ERGs) and networking events taking place during their time in the program.

Most of these activities are a “light lift” but make a big difference in helping returners feel supported and like part of the team. You’ll find a detailed calendar of these and other suggested program activities in the downloadable tools at the end of the section.

Engage buddies and mentors

Other than their managers, the most important support relationships a returner can have are a buddy and/or a mentor. 

A buddy’s role is to help the returner navigate the nuances of the company culture, offer advice, and answer questions about the unwritten rules and practices that nearly every company has. Giving returners this peer support helps foster a sense of community and can also provide them with networking opportunities. Many companies source their buddies from their employee affinity groups — or ERGs — particularly from groups focused on women or parents. Not only does this give the returners access to a whole community of support, but it also engages and energizes the ERG members who are often looking for meaningful ways to represent their group and impact company culture.

Mentors play a more job-specific role, helping returners integrate more effectively into their team. The returner’s manager should be involved in designating the mentor — usually a teammate — who can help answer questions when the manager is not available. A good mentor understands the returner’s role, and can provide introductions to key team members, guidance on collaborative projects, and technical, day-to-day support. The mentor role is an excellent development opportunity for anyone who has potential as a future people manager.

The leadership and HR teams were always approachable and helpful. I felt part of the company culture right away, and felt included and comfortable. I was assigned a buddy [and] the returnship meet-ups and onboarding training were excellent ways to make a new hire feel comfortable while getting up to speed at the same time. My manager and coworkers were really kind and accommodating. My manager and I had regular check-ins and I always felt included and valued. One thing my manager did at the beginning of my returnship, which proved to be so valuable, was to invite me to sit in on a variety of meetings. That really helped me interact with my coworkers, understand the processes at Campbell, and get a sense of the team and company culture. This greatly helped me understand how to run my projects.

— Ranjany,

returner at Campbell’s

Leverage learning and development opportunities

Not every company has a robust learning and development platform, but be sure to use whatever tools you have at your disposal to provide your returners with the company-specific knowledge they’ll need to succeed. You can think about learning opportunities in two buckets:

  • Office technology: Think about the technology you use to communicate, create, and convene. Although it’s often intuitive to use, the specter of new office technology can often be a major source of stress for returners. Can you offer the returners a primer on things like your video conferencing tools, preferred channels for communication, or any proprietary systems you use? Brief training on these topics can help quickly ramp up the returners’ productivity.
  • Job-specific training: Depending on the role a returner is filling, you may have some existing training modules or sessions that are crucial to success in that job. For example, a sales representative may need more education about each product or service you offer, so they can speak credibly to potential customers. A customer support engineer may need to learn some proprietary code before troubleshooting for customers. Be sure to set aside time in your program calendar (and with the returners’ managers) to allow them to take any relevant training courses. Their managers may also recommend that they take specific learning modules over the course of the returnship, based on each individual returner’s role and skill set. The more information about the company, individual team, and role that you can provide in the beginning of the returnship, the more your returner is poised to succeed.

Best Practices for Tech Returners:

Incorporating learning and development tools for returnships in technical functions can have a significant impact on conversion outcomes. Many companies, including Allstate, Audible, PayPal, Red Ventures, VMware, and Walmart Labs, created opportunities for technical returners to learn together at the start of the program. Not only did this minimize the cost of training, it also provided returners a chance to help each other. Not surprisingly, the companies who’ve offered organized, returner-specific tech training have experienced faster ramp up times and higher conversion rates at the end of the program.

Now let’s turn to the hiring managers and what they need to be thinking about during the onboarding process and beyond. Arrange some time with the hiring managers and those who have signed on to act as mentors and buddies to prepare for welcoming your returners. You’ll find a customizable presentation, as well as a recorded delivery of that training, in the downloadable tools for this section.

Set clear expectations

The idea of setting clear job expectations may seem obvious for any new hire, but taking time to be intentional about your goals and timelines can have a significant impact on your returner’s success. In addition to thoroughly laying out what you want them to accomplish during their returnship, be sure to include the timeframe and milestones you’d like them to hit. Help your returner understand how quickly you hope they will ramp up, what “good” looks like on your team, and which teammates they can rely on to help them achieve their goals. Your expectations may change over time as you learn more about your returner’s skills and their ability to work independently, so be sure to keep the conversation about job expectations going throughout the entire returnship.

Prioritize feedback

Returners don’t always operate with a level of confidence that matches their experience and competence. And, as you can probably guess, they are generally very eager to be considered for a full-time position at the end of their returnship. Quality, timely feedback is critical to helping returners — and you! — achieve this outcome.

In general, good feedback is both supportive and direct and should be delivered in an encouraging and clear manner. Managers can use a combination of  informal, on-the-spot feedback and more formal, dedicated feedback sessions to help their returner ramp up as quickly as possible. Let’s focus on a few best practices for giving feedback to returners.

Schedule formal, regular check-ins with the returner

Having regular opportunities to speak to their manager about how they’re doing and to ask questions is invaluable to a returner. Getting feedback in smaller, regular increments helps ensure they’re progressing, but don’t get overwhelmed or anxious. It also keeps them focused on the work and their contributions.

Couple constructive criticism with resources

If you’ve identified an area for improvement, try to follow that assessment with some specific ways the returner can close that gap, whether it be a training module or resource your company offers, the chance to speak with a mentor, or an opportunity to shadow someone else on the team.

Acknowledge strengths

As part of your feedback, don’t forget to identify and share the returner’s strengths, and guide them on how they can best apply and leverage those strengths to advance the work of the team and to advance their own careers.

Have a midpoint review

We highly recommend a formal feedback session at the halfway point of the program, both to assess the returner’s performance in the first half and to set expectations for them in the second. The conversation around midpoint performance should ideally include feedback from the manager, returner, mentor, and any other peers working with the returner. If your program is direct hire, consider giving your returners a 90-day review to help them continue to improve their performance.

The nature of the feedback can and should shift as the returnship progresses, beginning with more supportive coaching and transitioning over time to areas for improvement. For a 16-week program, for example, you can think of feedback in the following three stages:

Types Of Feedback Appropriate To Each Stage Of The Returnship

Phase: Purpose: Key Objectives:
Onboarding and Setting Expectations (1st month) Ensure the returnee is oriented to the job and expectations
  • Understand job responsibilities and expectations
  • Know team members and other colleagues
  • Access resources and supports
Coaching and Developing (2nd month) Ensure the returnee is getting support to be successful on the job
  • Learn new skills and behaviors
  • Know strategies for improvement
Assessing and offboarding (3rd and 4th months) Ensure the returnee understands her/his performance
  • Know own strengths and areas for growth
  • Understand possible options for future

Avoid common pitfalls

As we’ve shared throughout this section, starting returners off on the right foot is important. Unfortunately, we’ve seen companies make some significant missteps at this stage. Here are the most common:

  • Treating returners like temps. It matters how returners are introduced to the team. You may have hired them as contract or temporary workers, but the goal of this program is for them to stay on afterwards, so they should be introduced and treated like full-time members of your team. Keep in mind that their employee classification in your system can sometimes lead to automated exclusions from things like all-hands meetings, company-wide email distribution lists, or even having access to training resources. You may need to take a few extra steps to make sure your returners are invited to and included in these types of events.
  • Giving inconsistent or conflicting feedback. Returners will undoubtedly get feedback from a variety of people, including their manager, teammates, and mentors. If a mentor or someone else is spending time with the returner and notices strengths or areas for improvement, it’s crucial they share the feedback they have with both the returner and their manager. The returner needs consistent feedback, shared transparently among the various people working with them in order to maintain and improve their performance.
  • Not delivering the tough feedback. We’ve seen well-meaning managers focus so much on encouraging their returner and easing their transition that they fail to convey how their returner is doing relative to expectations. This can lead to some very uncomfortable conversations at the end of the program when a returner who thought they were doing fine learns that they are not being converted to full time. Remember that feedback — even critical feedback — is a gift that allows people to grow and improve.

From day one, my team was very supportive. My manager designed an onboarding plan to ensure I had a great experience throughout the program no matter what the outcome was (if I received a full-time offer or not). I had weekly check-ins with my manager to make sure I was comfortable in my role and received feedback on areas of improvement. The feedback helped me improve in my role over the duration of the program. I also had a mentor and buddy who gave me all the resources I needed to get started and who I could go to for questions throughout the program

— Pratyusha,

returner at Grubhub

Downloadable Tools

Before your returners start, use the downloadable onboarding presentation to prepare your teams to extend them a warm welcome. Use the recording of the training to better understand what to share during a session with managers, mentors, and other team members.

Part 5

Wrapping Up, Assessing, and Scaling

This is also the time to survey everyone involved — returners, managers, mentors, and leadership — about the strengths and areas of improvement for the program overall. And finally, it’s time to think about how you move forward after your pilot to improve and scale your program. In this section, we’ll walk you through how to approach each of these activities.

Determine individual outcomes

There are two key variables involved in determining the outcome for each returner in your program — their individual performance and the availability of headcount. If you followed our advice, you tied the returnship positions to existing headcount which would take that variable out of play. But, we know that practically speaking, headcount plans often change and you may be faced with some unexpected trade-offs.  Let’s look at the three most common scenarios for off-boarding returners from the program.

  • The returner is performing well and headcount is available. This is the situation and outcome you were hoping for! Work with HR to put together an offer that reflects the returner’s performance level. Keep in mind that this could be at a different level from the level of their returnship position, as performance warrants. 
  • The returner is not performing well and isn’t a good long-term fit for the role. This situation may be straight-forward — e.g. they aren’t a good fit for the company as a whole and they will be leaving the company at the end of the returnship. But perhaps you see potential in the returner for other roles at the company. In that case, engage with your HR team to assess the returner’s skills against the requirements of other job openings at your company. We’ve seen many instances where returners excelled in different roles within the same company. If you think your returner might be a good fit for another team, make introductions to those managers. 
  • The returner is performing well but there is no budget or headcount to keep them. This is admittedly the worst situation to find yourself in. If you think headcount will be opening in the near future, you might explore whether you can offer the returner a contract extension to bridge the gap. You can also help your returner find their next opportunity within the company by reaching out to managers who do have headcount and recommending that they consider them.

In the downloadable tools for this section, you’ll find a presentation and recording that you can use to review these scenarios with managers, as well as best practices for communicating your decisions to returners.

Communicate decisions

Get your managers and HR teams aligned on making hiring decisions, how and when you’ll present offers, and how you’ll handle transitions out of the organization. Ensuring that everyone is on the same page around expected timelines for sharing decisions and making offers is critical when you have a cohort of returners. When some returners have their conversion decisions and others are still waiting, it only adds anxiety to an already stressful situation, so follow a coordinated timeline. For example:

  • Three weeks prior to end of program: Managers share conversion decision with HR
  • Two weeks prior to end of program: Managers communicate conversion decisions to returners
  • Final two weeks: Managers facilitate connections between returners who are not being converted and other hiring managers with open positions, as appropriate

Whenever possible, tell the returners about this timeline so they know when to expect a decision. Your cohort of returners have probably gotten to know one another well during this program and they will almost certainly be talking amongst themselves about their prospects for conversion, so make sure that all managers involved in the program are following the same timeline.

Negotiate offers

For those returners who are getting offers, take a minute to tell them why you are excited to have them stay with the team, sell the benefits of the organization, and give them a preview of what’s to come after the program ends. As with all job offers, there is a chance your returner may negotiate some of the terms of their employment. In fact, we hope that they do! This is not a sign that they’re ungrateful, but rather that they are experienced professionals with a lot to offer. Then, after your returner has accepted the offer, be sure to share the exciting news with the team and meet with your returner to develop a new professional development plan and goals.

Support transitions out

There are two important things you can do for any returners who won’t be staying on with your team. First, continue to provide honest and constructive feedback through the end of the returnship. This will help the returner identify the gaps in their skills, make a plan to address those gaps, and be more prepared for their next opportunity. Second, as we mentioned above, assess the returner’s skills and strengths and wherever possible, recommend them to other teams who may be hiring. If you feel so inclined (and company policy allows) write a recommendation on your returner’s LinkedIn profile highlighting their strengths or offer to act as a reference for them.

Celebrate success — in all forms

The work that your returners have accomplished during the program deserves recognition and celebration. If possible, consider having them give a presentation to various stakeholders as a group, or encourage hiring managers to allow time for them to share their experiences at the team level. Either way, this can be a great opportunity for the returners to practice articulating the experience they received through the program and provide some additional visibility for the program results to leaders across the organization. If you’d like to do this, we’d recommend having the presentation before you share your individual conversion decisions, so the focus is on the effort, not the outcome.

Regardless of the outcomes for each returner in your program, we highly recommend you organize an end-of-program celebration for all returners, managers, and senior leaders involved. This will ensure that all returners, whether staying or leaving, feel proud of their accomplishments. In the celebration, you can have returners talk about the impact of the program on their personal and professional lives, how they’ve grown, or what they’ve learned. In addition to recognizing the massive transition the returners have gone through during the program, it is another great opportunity to highlight the impact of the program to leaders throughout the organization. 

Concerned about celebrating when the returners have mixed outcomes? Remember that your program has made a lasting impact on every participant, not just those who were hired into full-time roles. Here’s what one returner had to say about her post-returnship outlook:

I don’t think there was a single day where I felt that I wasn’t learning, and by the end of the returnship I had gained so many new skills and improved my portfolio. After my returnship ended, I took a bit of a break to upskill myself in some areas where I had received actionable feedback from my returnship mentor… When I started applying again, I felt very confident because my portfolio looked a lot better with the experience I had gained and I was ready to get started on the next amazing chapter in my career.

— Shruti,

returner at Walmart

Assess your pilot

After your returnship has finished and you’ve celebrated with your team, there is still one more step to take: assess your program both quantitatively and qualitatively.

There are two key quantitative measures of success: 

  • Did you hit your target for the total number of returners hired into the program?
  • What percentage of your returners were converted to full time positions (if using the temp to perm model.) 

You may also want to track the number of applications received per role (to serve as a benchmark for future cohorts) and the retention rate of your returners relative to other employees over time. In our experience, increased retention is often a downstream benefit of returnship programs. 

You’ll also want to get some qualitative feedback from managers, recruiters, and the returners themselves. Try to learn about both the experience and the processes around your returnship from every angle.

  • Ask recruiters about unexpected things they encountered, how closely they kept to the recruitment timeline and why, and what suggestions they have to make the process better in the future. 
  • Ask managers about the quality of the candidates and hires, what surprised them about their returner, and what could have made the program better for them as managers. Their impressions will not only help you improve for your next cohort, but will also give you testimonials that will help you recruit the next group of managers.
  • Get feedback from your returners about their experience during the interview process, onboarding, ongoing program support, and the conversion process. Returners provide a unique perspective on what could be done differently for those who will follow in their footsteps.

All of this feedback will help you adapt the program to better fit the needs of these key stakeholders and to more closely align with your company operations and culture.

Make improvements and scale

Throughout this experience, you will have learned A LOT about how a returnship program fits in at your company. You will know which teams and roles are best for returners (or ones to avoid), who your internal champions are, and which structural changes you might want to make going forward. 

Over time, you might consider any number of structural changes, including switching from cohorts to rolling hires or shifting from temp-to-perm to direct hire. You may discover that your teams have interest in scaling the program, or you may simply want to repeat the program at the same size or slightly larger next year with a few refinements.

Companies have taken different approaches to achieving scale, including:

  • Expanding a single-team pilot out to multiple teams or the whole organization
  • Bringing in multiple cohorts per year
  • Shifting to rolling hiring to enable onboarding of returners year-round
  • Expanding to include non-US geographies (particularly the UK and India)

What “scale” looks like is entirely up to you. At the high end, the largest companies with the biggest programs are bringing in 100-150 returners per year. At the other end, some start-ups and small companies that are focused on diverse talent pools are using their returnships to hire 3-5 returners per year. Both approaches — and everything in between — are necessary if we’re going to collectively tackle the biases that returners face and enable them to participate fully in our workforce.

Our thanks and certification

From everyone here at Path Forward, thank you for using our Returnship Builder to create a returnship program at your company. We see so much potential and value in people who are returning from career breaks and are glad you see it too. These programs represent a huge opportunity for companies who are willing to evaluate candidates through a different lens and think differently about who can be successful on their teams. 

The Path Forward community of prospective returners is always looking for opportunities at companies that welcome returners and whose programs offer great transition support. If you’ve built your program using this guide, be sure to let returners know that your program has “Path Forward inside”. Download our badge below and add it to your program page on your careers site as a symbol of the thought and resources you’ve put into your program. Let us know you’ve launched at [email protected] and we’ll add your program to our Returnship Matcher, with prioritized listing.

Thank you for welcoming returners into your ranks. Your efforts are changing lives — theirs and hopefully yours as well. Onward!

Downloadable Tools

As you approach the end of your program, use the downloadable off-boarding presentation and sample recording to get your managers and HR teams aligned on the decisions and communications they need to deliver. And tell returners that you’ve built your program using Path Forward’s best practices with our downloadable certification badge.