Returnship programs have taken on new importance in the wake of COVID-19. Carol Fishman Cohen of iRelaunch and Deloitte’s Kristi Lamar break down the elements of a successful return from a career break.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Let’s face it, our society attaches so much importance to who we are as people in terms of what we do for work. So when we’re separated from that professional identity for a long time, you feel diminished.
Tanya Ott: But there’s a new model of employment that’s offering hope to many, and we’re talking about it today on the Press Room.
Tanya: Thanks for joining us, I’m Tanya Ott. I’ve worked nonstop for more than 30 years, and [have] three kids. But I did recently relaunch my professional self in a new way. At 50, I went back to graduate school to finish the master’s and now, almost, the doctoral degree. It was scary, exhilarating, and as challenging as you can imagine. But now that I’ve got a professor job lined up, I can breathe a little.
Lots of people are rethinking their careers these days … especially those who’ve chosen or been forced to take a break from work because of COVID-19. When you’re ready to go back to work, it can be scary. Carol Fishman Cohen has been there.
Carol Fishman Cohen: In 1990, I was on maternity leave with my first child, and I was working for an investment bank as a financial analyst in corporate finance called Drexel Burnham Lambert, if anyone remembers, Drexel. Drexel collapsed in February of 1990 while I was on maternity leave with my first child, so I didn’t have a company to return to. And that began my career break. I decided not to go looking for the next big job. I had three more kids in close succession and was home with them for 11 years from 1990 to 2001. When I returned to work, now 20 years ago, in 2001, it was at Bain Capital, the Boston-based investment firm, in part because there were ex-Drexel people who were working there who remembered me from 11 years before. I relaunched my own career when no one was talking about this. There were no books or programs or academic studies. I didn’t know a single other person who was returning to work after a career break, and I ended up doing this on my own.
Tanya: She wrote a book about it called Back on the Career Track: a Guide for Stay-at-Home Mothers Who Want to Return to Work. She also cofounded a company called iRelaunch that helps people like her.
Carol: The way we define [a] relauncher is a person who has returned to work after a career break from one to over 20 years. It could be for a range of reasons, child care or elder care or pursuing a personal interest or a personal health issue or expat experience, military spouse, unretiring.
Tanya: When you were considering this idea of relaunching your career, what were you feeling? What were you thinking at that time?
Carol: It’s a good question, because when you are professionally disconnected for an extended period of time like I was and like many relaunchers are, you can experience a diminished sense of self. Part of the relaunch is building back up your confidence and upskilling or reskilling again so you feel like a subject-matter expert all over again and figuring out [if] you even want to do what you did before and reinvigorating your network. There are a whole bunch of extra pieces of the relaunch, in addition to all the other parts of a regular job search, that make the relaunch different from a regular job search.
In my own case, I stopped reading The Wall Street Journal. I left my subscription because I wasn’t making income, and didn’t feel justified in keeping it going. The first thing I had to do was subscribe to The Wall Street Journal, and read it cover to cover. I read it cover to cover for a good six months before I knew what was going on; I had some idea of what was going on in the business world again. The ‘90s were a period of great consolidation in financial services, and companies went under, and companies combined, and they changed names, and one of my big fears was I was going to go into an interview and start talking about a company that didn’t exist anymore. That was No. 1. But then more substantively, I had to reskill and really review in an intensive way all the financial products that were happening in 2001 versus when I left, and how they worked, and what they were called, and why the old ones, we weren’t using anymore. That was a series of steps, like looking at old deals and looking at old finance books, and talking to all of my old colleagues, and really grilling them about all of these topics.
Tanya Ott: So did you feel a little bit a sense of comfort because there were other Drexel with people who were at the company that you were targeting?
Carol: One of the things that Vivian Steir Rabin, who coauthored Back on the Career Track with me—the book that really started what we ended up doing—what we realized was that people have this frozen-in-time view of you. And it was really interesting to see it in play. We didn’t even recognize it as a thing until it happened a couple of times. But one of the times was when I started telling people that I had worked with over 10 years ago that I was interested in going back to work, and they were so excited. They were more confident about my prospects than I was myself at that point. They said, that’s great news, let’s go to lunch, let’s talk. The other thing that happened was I went to my 15-year business school reunion. That was in 2000, because I graduated in ‘85. A lot of people won’t go to their reunions if they’re not working because they don’t have anything in the career department to talk about. But that’s exactly when you should go. I ran into one of my classmates who turned out to be a headhunter. About nine months after the event, she said, “You know, something crossed my desk that might be of interest to you, that is a good match with your skill set.” It was a regional CFO position. I was thinking, what skill set is she talking about? The one she’s remembering from when we were first year [students] sitting next to each other in 1983. So that was when this whole idea of frozen-in-time really locked in for Vivian and me. And it’s true for relaunchers. People remember you from the past when you don’t think they’re going to.
Tanya: There are a couple of different ways that people can relaunch. Talk to us a little bit about the different versions of relaunching.
Carol: There are different formal return-to-work programs that companies have been starting since the early 2000s, and have evolved over time, and they tend to fall into two categories. The dominant category is a returnship, which is internship-like. You engage with the company for a certain period of time and then, when that period is over, you have the opportunity or not to become an employee. There are other programs that we’re seeing, a more recent version, which is what we call direct hire, where people are still part of a program where there’s some sort of transitional programing and support, but they’re hired as an employee from Day One.
Tanya: How do the returnship programs work?
Carol: The first returnship program started in 2008. Goldman Sachs was the first company to run one, and Sara Lee started theirs in the same year. They’re usually competitive. People apply to participate in an internship-like arrangement where they’re going anywhere from eight weeks to nine months. Most of them are somewhere between 12 weeks and six months. You are part of a cohort of people, you come in as a group of people who are relaunching their careers at the same time. Either you can have an actual role in the company, or be working on a project in a certain area, or be in a generic role that will convert to some specific role when the program is over if you’re successful. There is transitional programing, there are mentors and buddies, and there’s a whole experience that you go through as a cohort when you’re in the returnship. If you think about a student summer-internship program tweaked for the mid-career professional, it’s a similar concept.
Tanya: Kristi Lamar studies these concepts. She’s managing director of the Deloitte Consulting LP strategy practice. She also leads Women in Tech for the Deloitte’s US firms. Kristi—what are the tweaks we see in those kinds of programs?
Kristi Lamar: Returnship gives the organization a chance to understand how this professional is going to be able to assimilate into the organization, and find the right type of role given the right training. But it’s also really important for the returner to understand how they fit into the workforce, into the organization, and do they have a cohort with which they feel comfortable connecting and they can convene to. It’s basically that kind of test run for everybody to make sure that it’s going to work.
Tanya: You mention the word cohort, and that’s a pretty significant part of this returnship. What’s the benefit of the cohort? Was the cohort so important?
Kristi: The cohort is so important to the long-term success of that individual and those people because they’re going through an experience that is raw, and it’s vulnerable. They’re part of an experience that is not the same as somebody who’s going from job to job to job. They’re going to have questions that are unique to their experiences. I referred to even navigating the organization. I think about somewhere that’s [like] Deloitte, that is tens of thousands of people large, that’s hard to navigate. How do you build your network? How do you deal with this difficult situation? How do you even book travel? How do you ask questions? Where do you find the templates? Having a group of people that you feel safe asking questions with is very, very important. Then that cohort, in and of themselves, as they start to gain some strength in the organization, they become mentors to the cohorts behind them.
Tanya: When I hear about these programs, I automatically think of women that I know. So I’m wondering if you mostly see women going through these relaunching programs, or if you see men going through it as well.
Carol: The dominant subset of the relaunching population originated as and still is women who take career breaks for child-care reasons. But there are men who take career breaks for child-care reasons, and women and men who take career breaks for reasons that have nothing to do with child care. That being said, the supply is roughly 90% female. We see that in our own national community [in] who shows up at our events, and we see it reflected in the cohorts that go through the companies that have these returnship programs and return to work programs in general. So, yes, it’s still a primarily female pool. In fact, if you look at the history of returnships, most of them are started as diversity initiatives because companies realize that they don’t have enough women at mid- to senior-level roles. The whole idea of the returnship was to connect with the population on the other side of their career break, and then have this high-caliber group. We say that people who are high performers don’t lose their abilities simply because they take a career break. One of the reasons these programs are proliferating is that the pool is high caliber: educated, great work experience, stable life stage, mature perspective. We’ve already been in a working environment, and we’ve worked with teams and different personalities and work deadlines. That doesn’t have to be retaught. We’re also more fully formed. I know that I was a different employee when I was 42 years old than when I was 29, about to go on my career break. So the population is a very attractive population, and the employer concerns about the population about technological obsolescence, which we believe is a temporary condition, or people not knowing exactly what they want to do, which is one of the big pieces that we focus on at iRelaunch, those are elements that can be resolved or corrected, and then companies have this very rich talent pool to recruit from.
And just to build on what Kristi was saying earlier, the returnship model has been around long enough that we have a lot of data on it and the average conversion rates. The percentage of people who convert into employees or who get hired when the returnship program is over is averaging over 80%. So it’s clearly a successful model. And that cohort experience of going through the process together is really important, both on the personal and professional level. People, when they go through a life transition like that with a group, they are bonded for the long term.
Kristi: We’ve also seen that attrition rates for returnships are actually on par, if not trending toward better than, traditional employees in the attrition rate. Voluntary attrition.
Tanya: We’ve been talking rather broadly, and a lot of the conversation we’ve been having so far could be applied to lots of different industries. But why are these types of programs particularly important in the tech industry?
Kristi: From my vantage point, especially what I do around Women in Tech, we have seen that [most] organizations call themselves technology companies now because of the proliferation and use of how technology changes enterprise outcomes. We need, within the enterprise, more people that have technology capabilities than ever before, whether it’s analytics and AI and machine learning (ML) or cloud-based development or you name it. We know all the buzzwords. Those are skills that employees, regardless of industry or sector, really need to really enable the enterprise. At the same time, there are very few particular programs that you can actually go get a bachelor’s degree in, as an example, AI, ML. These are nascent skills for the most part in higher ed. This is an opportunity for us to take capable professional athletes, if you will, and retool them or give them skills that are going to make them productive now and have some longevity, regardless of what industry they’re working in.
Carol: Just to extend that, these programs have evolved to the point where they’re competitive. The people who rise to the top of the pool to get selected for these programs are the ones who have already taken it upon themselves to do their own updating. As Kristi is talking about retooling, you might see, for example, an electrical engineer who’s been out for 10 years, who takes courses in Python, and is retooling to be a data scientist. We have examples of technical people who’ve been out for 15 to 25 years, but if they go back and take a nine-month iOS development course and then come back into the workforce, we’ve seen them thrive. We don’t really see a correlation between length of career break or how old someone is and their success in relaunching. It really has to do with them figuring out exactly what they want to do, becoming a subject matter expert again and retooling or upskilling, and then being very diligent about finding the right match for themselves inside a company.
Tanya: Obviously right now we are working in an environment where there are a lot of people who maybe have left work because of COVID-19, because of taking care of family members, because of child-care responsibilities. How has COVID-19 changed the way you think about returnships and relaunching?
Carol: It’s been fascinating to watch because there are a few things that are going on. First of all, some of the companies that we work with were in the middle of running their cohorts in person when March of 2020 hit, and everything all of a sudden went virtual. So we saw companies move their programs pretty seamlessly from in-person to virtual as they were moving their companies from the office to home. We, of course, then had the great experiment of what does remote work look like. We have seen some companies now decide that some of their roles are going to be permanently remote—that’s career break or no career break—that could be recruiting across the whole country for it. But it also means that relaunchers nationally can apply for certain roles where before they had to live in a particular area, and companies can recruit through the whole national pool. And that’s just talking United States. We’ve seen this globally, too.
The other thing we saw [from] the relaunch that happened during COVID-19 was what we would call a more gentler relaunch, because it was essentially in two stages. So let’s say this was a person who left for child-care reasons. Mom or dad are still home, even though they’ve now relaunched their careers. They’re at work, but they’re around, even though the door might be closed, and you’re not supposed to come in or make noise. They have relaunched and then at some later stage, they’re going to go into the office, as opposed to both of those things happening at the same time. The people who took career breaks for child-care reasons, who have their families around them, were saying that that gradual transition was actually better for their family.
Tanya: That makes a lot of sense.
Kristi: COVID-19 has also given people a moment to pause, if you will, and think about what [they] want to do with their careers. There might be professionals who had technical competencies and jobs involved in technology that might be trending toward more obsolescence than something else. This gives them that chance to say, OK, what is something that I can do on that idea of reskilling, retooling? Where can I reapply my curiosity and my aptitude to be able to navigate technology to do something new that’s going to give me more longevity from a professional standpoint?
Carol: Exactly. Also, we’re starting to think about, how long are the breaks going to be? So at the peak, if you look at the numbers, 2.3 million women and 1.8 million men left the labor force. They withdrew from the labor force during the pandemic. That means that they were not actively looking for work, and they were not counted in the unemployed. And that pandemic exodus is one that’s being looked at pretty closely by companies that offer return-to-work programs. Now, I’ve since checked with a number of economists, and we cannot pin down what percentage of that population is college-educated, and to some degree or another, maybe that’s more or less important. But we’re starting to see companies that offer return-to-work programs think about whether to lower their minimum years of career break for eligibility to apply for the program, from two years or one-and-a- half years to one year. I’ve seen that Deloitte’s encore program itself in the United States has even made it shorter to six months.
Kristi: The idea around that is we want to make sure that people feel like there is opportunity. Everyone’s break is different. It’s the idea of saying, let’s use this as a chance to retool, do something different and change the trajectory; time doesn’t necessarily have to be a limiting factor.
Carol: It’s super interesting. On the other side of it, career breaks tend to be longer than people think. COVID-19 or no COVID-19, people will say, I only thought I was going to be out a year or two, and the next thing I know, five years went by or 10 years went by. We’re thinking that with the COVID-19 breaks, they’re going to be longer than people think. If [someone] did take a break for a reason that had nothing to do with their work performance, that there was too much going on at home with child care, elder care, family support being needed—when day-care centers open up again or schools start, it’s not like, snap your fingers and everyone’s running back. First of all, some of those school schedules are not very consistent day-to-day or week-to-week. Secondly, there’s fallout from COVID-19. There might be kids who have mental health issues or other adjustment pieces that need to be in place before the parent who took that career break is going to feel ready to go back. It might be longer than they think or other people think in general.
Tanya: Kristi, what are the most important aspects companies have to think about if they're going to adopt programs like this?
Kristi: They really need to think about the full life cycle of it. Not only do we need to be able to open our hearts and minds to sourcing talent differently, we also need to hire for fit and train for skill. A lot of times we try to hire employees that fit the exact job description, and we need to open the aperture a bit. Then it is really about, how do we ensure success of these individuals in the long term, not just through the returnship timeline, not just through training and not even just for like six to 12 months after? It needs to become embedded into the culture of the organization so that they still feel like they have a safe place to be vulnerable, to have conversations that might be unique to them, but then they start to integrate into the larger organization.
Kristi: And there’s tremendous scale in this. It doesn’t have to be, you go big bang right out of the gate on this. You can start small in specific capabilities and specific areas, and start to get familiar with it. Trial things out, take an agile approach, something we talk about in technology all the time. If you fail, fail fast and change. But as you start to have successes, scale quickly and expand. As we look at how the workforce is changing and the demand in technology, these types of programs and embedding them into the enterprise recruitment and talent experience will really change the make-up in the enterprise.
Tanya: So it’s crystal ball time. What do these programs and these approaches look like over the next five years or so?
Kristi: So as we build programs that enable professionals to evolve their skills, I believe that we will actually start to see the enterprise and the employees that are already there use these programs to reskill as well. If an employee currently has a role that they don’t necessarily love, that they can raise their hand to say, “I would like to go be a part of this as well, because I have an aspiration to go do something differently,” and they can change the course of their career, I see tremendous benefit in that. I also see that we will change the way that we hire. It used to be that you had to check all the boxes, and had to have a four-year degree. But we realized that aptitude and curiosity are skills that you can’t go to school for, but they really changed the outcome for the person and the enterprise. The notion of having to have a four-year degree now to get into a lot of jobs in organizations is going to be diminished. Certainly not all jobs are going to be able to have that degree, but as we open our hearts and minds to realizing the opportunity of the possible, we’re going to be able to diversify our workforce because we are going to change the makeup and the source from which we recruit, and the skills that they have on their quote-unquote resume.
Carol: I see three forces working here. One is the pandemic exodus and the increase in size of the future relauncher population. We’re also seeing millennials in surveys showing that they are anticipating taking career breaks in numbers that we’ve never seen before. Third, we have more relaunchers in the workplace now. The longer these programs have been around, the more there’s a critical mass of relaunchers inside organizations, and they will not only mentor the new relauncher coming after them, they might even be more inclined to hire relaunches to work for them. All of those courses point to more relaunches and more programs in the future.
Tanya: Carol Fishman Cohen is CEO and cofounder of iRelaunch. She’s also the co-author of the book Back on the Career Track: a Guide for Stay-at-Home Mothers Who Want to Return to Work.Kristi Lamar is managing director of Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Strategy practice, and she leads Women in Tech for US Deloitte.
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I’m Tanya Ott. Have a wonderful day!
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