Through COVID-19 and its domination of 2020, how we look at our health and our work have come into sharp focus. High unemployment rates, people being forced to leave the workforce (women, in particular), and the transition to remote work all became issues we had to contend with collectively. While studies from Pew Research indicate that the U.S. job market is slowly recovering, there’s still a ways to go. For those looking to return to the workforce post-pandemic, returnships (also known as mid-career internships) is a trending buzzword. But you may be surprised to learn it’s actually been around for quite a while — at least in the tech space. Slowly, but surely, that’s starting to change for the CPG industry as well.
Launched in 2016, Path Forward was ahead of its time. The nonprofit organization, developed to empower people to restart their careers after time spent focused on caregiving, works with companies to help professionals jumpstart back to their careers while simultaneously providing companies with diverse and untapped talent. Executive Director Tami M. Forman told us that the problem is by no means new — it’s just become worse (and more apparent) in the age of Covid with school, after-school, and summer programs shut down. Many issues families were facing have finally been brought to the forefront, and now, there’s no going back.
“We’re definitely seeing companies reinvigorated by this. I think executives are finally realizing this isn’t really a choice for a lot of people. I think it was a little harder before 2020. I think [the year] has raised awareness for executives that there are people who want to be working,” explains Forman. “I’m very hopeful that we’re going to see these programs expand. That’s the crusade I’m on right now — every company in America should be doing this. I don’t understand why you’re not. Surely if you do a college internship program, you can handle a program like this.”
Forman reports that about 80 percent of people who complete the Path Forward program get hired and go into full-time jobs at those companies, proving that success is indeed attainable. “You can bring those women back, and you can accelerate their careers within your company. They may not get to that seat quite as fast as the man or woman who never took a break, but they will get there,” Forman adds. “There is plenty of time. The idea that we can’t really find our pathway back and get them back into those higher-level positions is kind of insane.”
While routed in the tech world with clients such as Netflix, Facebook, and Audible.com, Path Forward is starting to branch out to more CPG companies, including Campbell’s (which is about to launch their second program soon). Considering the high percentage of women in the CPG space globally, you would think more organizations would gravitate toward returnships. “It’s always been interesting to me that even in industries where women are dominating in terms of numbers, they still don’t tend to dominate at the highest levels of leadership,” notes Forman. “I think when we come back to CPG, and any kind of corporate environment, you’re pointing to women who might take a step back right at the midpoint of their career, and if the company doesn’t have a way to bring those people back, they lose that pipeline. My thing is: it doesn’t have to get lost.”
Path Forward works with employers to conduct training with hiring managers and they provide a ton of support so that everyone is set up for success with the program. And in the future, Forman hopes career breaks are seen as a normal part of life where men and women can take some time to spend with their family or an elderly parent, and then plan to come back into the workforce. “The program would be integrated into normal talent management strategies that companies start to employ,” she concludes. “Obviously, I would love to see that and have it just be normal in a way that makes it also more widespread.”
Audible.com is an example of one company getting with the program — proving that small steps are having big results. “We initially began thinking of launching a Returnship program to close the gender diversity gap in tech — especially at mid-career and senior levels. As we were brainstorming different approaches, we learned that roughly 56 percent of women leave the technology industry by the mid-level point in their careers, mostly due to caregiving reasons,” explains David Rosenthal, Director of Thought Leadership at Audible.com. “For many of these women, it’s almost impossible to return to work given how dynamic the tech sector is and how rapidly it keeps evolving. It’s even harder for males who took caregiving career breaks.”
The Returnship program, he adds, has enabled Audible.com to tap into a unique talent pool. “We built a robust program that focused not only on identifying and hiring this talent, but also on creating a strong support mechanisms and development platforms (for both technical and non-technical learnings) to set them up for success and eventually offer them full-time employment offers based on their performance.”
Thus far, Rosenthal reports that the results have been great. “The returnees bring unique perspectives to the table that are considered very valuable by their teams and managers,” he notes. “They have so much loyalty and gratitude for the program and organization, it reflects in the work they do and the effort they put in to go above and beyond.” The program has been such a success that Audible.com plans to make it recurring.
As to why now was the ideal time to launch the program, Rosenthal sites the pandemic and resulting unprecedented joblessness –even for those without career breaks. “This made it even harder for those on caregiving-related career breaks to return to the workforce and land roles where they can pick up where they paused their careers,” Rosenthal says. “One of Audible’s People Principles is ‘Activate Caring,’ wherein we believe in giving people a chance, and we work to make this so.”