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Rolling Returnships and Other New Returnship Trends

This is the first of a series of 3 articles for returning professionals on new trends in returner programmes. We’re starting with returnships, and will be moving on to supported hiring and retraining programmes.

If you’re looking to return to work after a long career break, a returnship can be a great route back to a fulfilling professional role using your skills and experience.

In the last 6 years, the returnship market has rapidly accelerated in certain countries. In the UK, numbers grew from 3 programmes in 2014 to 53 returnships across 83 employers in 2019, in a wide range of sectors including telecoms, tech, media, local and central Government, legal, investment management, insurance, consulting, transport, engineering and construction. Returnships also grew rapidly in the USA and India, with pockets of growth in smaller countries such as Ireland and Switzerland. After an unsurprising downturn during 2020, programme launches are picking up again and we’re hopeful that the upward trajectory will resume post-pandemic.

As with anything new, returnship design has been a process of learning and improving. At Women Returners, we’ve evolved the structure of our partnership programmes to increase the likelihood of success for returners and the business, and have looked to create new formats to widen the applicability and scope of opportunities.  To help you keep track, here’s a recap on what we mean by a returnship, followed by a highlight of a few of the new trends.

Recap: What is a Returnship?

A returnship is a professional-level, competitively-paid placement for 3-6 months, with a strong possibility of an ongoing role at the end of the programme. Effectively, it’s a higher-level internship specifically designed for returning professionals. As part of a returnship, you will receive extra support to help you get up to speed as quickly as possible. That typically includes a buddy to help you settle in and navigate the team and systems, training to help fill any knowledge gaps and an internal mentor to help you understand the broader organisational context and be a valuable sounding board. Coaching is also often provided through the transition period: our Career Returners Coaching Programme supports returners throughout the returnship to help you to prepare for your return, weather the inevitable emotional and practical ups-and-downs as you transition back, and proactively manage the returnship to maximise your chance of an ongoing opportunity. Most returnships run annually with a cohort joining together on a fixed date.

Changes to Returnship Structure

  1. The typical length of a returnship is now closer to 6 months than 3 months. The early programmes were all 12 weeks, which some companies found to be too short to achieve the objectives of getting participants back up to speed and demonstrating their abilities in time to be offered a permanent role at least a month before the placement ends. Many of the new programmes are now 5 to 6 months long (although you will still find 12-14 week programmes, as some employers have found this timing works better for them).
  2. You’re now more likely to be doing a job on a “temporary to permanent” basis, rather than a project, with available headcount at the end of the returnship if it’s successful for both sides (this is always our recommendation).
  3. With a growing base of returner programme alumni, you may be allocated a ‘returner buddy’ from a previous cohort to add to your support team.

Importantly, the first two changes have led to much higher post programme retention rates in recent years. We’ve seen the conversion rate to ongoing roles rise from about 50% to closer to 80-100%, as programmes are increasingly structured with this longer-term perspective.

Cross-Company Returnships

A growing area has been the development of cross-company returner programmes: a number of employers in a similar geographic location, and usually in the same sector, join together under an umbrella returnship programme. We’ve run cross-company programmes since 2018 in the financial services sector, in professional services, in law and in the savings and investment sector. It’s an exciting new development as it enables organisations with smaller-scale recruitment needs, or who want to test out the concept, to run a programme. Employers get to share learnings and costs, and to collaborate to increase sector-wide diversity in recruitment.

If you join one of our partnership cross-company programme, you will apply to and have your placement in one of the participating organisations. You’ll have group coaching with other returners across the participating organisations, giving you the opportunity to build a diverse, rich and supportive peer network.

One UK example is The Diversity Project Cross-Company Returner Programme, advertising now for the second year. This is a returnship across firms in the savings and investment sector. We’re leading the programme in partnership with the Diversity Project, an employer-led body. The 2020 programme was really successful, despite Covid uncertainties and virtual working, with an 82% conversion rate into ongoing roles. Participating organisations have increased from 5 to 8 leading employers for 2021.

Rolling Returnships

We’re seeing a new returnship format emerging – we’re calling it a ‘Rolling Returnship’. In this case, the returnship runs on a rolling application basis throughout the year, with returners joining individually at various dates to suit the business needs. This makes it easier for employers to offer their BAU (business as usual) roles, which come up ad-hoc during the year, to returner applicants.

With a rolling returnship, you may be invited to apply for all jobs in the open market or for a selection of roles identified as suitable for returners (e.g. where up to date technical/business knowledge isn’t required). You may be in competition with non-returner candidates, or certain roles may have been ringfenced for returners. You will join on a placement, as with a fixed date returnship, with support on an individual rather than a cohort basis (although you may get a returner buddy as mentioned above). See the programme with Mazars for an example.

What do we think about these trends?

Part of our mission is for returner programmes to become a normal part of an organisation’s wider talent strategy, so continued innovations like these are essential to broaden the potential of the return to work market. Both rolling returnships and cross-company programmes are an exciting way of opening up more opportunities for returners. The key consideration is that they are structured to work effectively for both the business and the participants, including recognising and lowering the hiring barriers that returners encounter.

Read our returnship success stories here to hear from participants themselves about their experiences – get your dose of inspiration!