Returning to the workforce after a pause to raise children, care for a relative, or recover from an illness can be a daunting challenge. Although the labor market is strong—the unemployment rate stood at just 4% in June—resuming a career after taking off a couple years (or more) may require you to build a new professional network and learn new skills.

One way back in: So-called returnships, internship-like programs designed to help mid-career professionals come back to work after a long hiatus. 

What’s it all about

In 2008, Goldman Sachs trademarked the term “returnship” when the financial services firm started the first return-to-work internship for professionals who have been out of a job for at least two years. The goal of the program, the company says, is to help people sharpen their skills in a work environment that may be significantly different from what they last experienced.

Since then, a number of companies have created similar re-entry programs—including Apple, Oracle, and Intuit—with new organizations cropping up to help employers design returnships for their businesses. In mid-July, more than 400 companies were posting returnship programs on the career site Glassdoor.

Typically, these programs last anywhere from 10 weeks to six months, says Carol Fishman Cohen, chair and co-founder at iRelaunch, a career re-entry programming and events company. While pay varies widely depending on the industry, you might earn an hourly rate that can start at $20.

What you have to gain

Return-to-work programs aren’t just for when you have trouble finding a job after a break. These programs can also appeal to retirees who left the workforce only to discover that retirement is not right for them, says Libby Gill, a Los Angeles executive coach and author of The Hope-Driven Leader: Harness the Power of Positivity at Work. (Cue Robert De Niro’s character in the film The Intern.)

The benefits can go beyond refreshing your skills. “Re-entry programs help you re-build your confidence,” says Cathy Hawley, senior vice president of performance at Return Path, a global e-mail data solutions provider in New York City. Hawley helped create Return Path’s career re-entry program in 2014.

Whether you gain hard skills, psychic benefits, or both, returnships can result in a full-time job. Hawley says that 85% of people who go through their program end up with a position at the company.

Cohen of iRelaunch reports similar success with job offers. “So far, we are seeing 50% to 100% of each program cohort get hired after the program completion,” says Cohen.

“Re-entry programs help you re-build your confidence.”
Cathy Hawley
Senior VP, Return Path

And for those who don’t receive job offers, she adds, “since these programs are competitive to get into, they are resume-worthy whether or not a person gets hired at the end.”

Returnships can also give you the opportunity to test drive an employer or a new industry. “We have folks in our program that turned down full-time job offers to do a returnship,” says Tami Forman, executive director at Path Forward, a nonprofit that works with employers to create return-to-work programs.

Why you might think twice

Returnships can help you return to the workforce, but they’re not right for everyone. Because some programs last only a couple of months, says Gill, “some people may find that returnships don’t really give them sufficient time to update and showcase their skills.” 

You might feel that you’re better off going directly into the job market without the detour of a returnship. If so, another option is to enhance your skills through a training program or college course, says Gill. Online education providers such as Udemy and Coursera offer free or low-cost courses in a variety of subjects.

What’s more, some career coaches say returnships can take your focus away from looking for a job. Another downside? Return-to-work programs typically don’t provide health benefits.

Finally, there’s no guarantee you’ll find a returnship in your field. “Financial services has been the leading industry sector offering returnships,” Cohen says. Tech companies and consulting firms are also fueling the returnship movement.

How to find a program

While there are potential costs of doing a returnship, “I think the positive far outweighs the negative,” says Gill. “For moms, caregivers, former military, and older workers, returnships offer a ‘safe environment’ to get retrained for full-time work, with relatively little downside to employer or employee.”

But Gills adds this caveat: “Just like a more traditional job search, employees have to weigh the upside and downside of each situation for themselves.”

Looking for a returnship? You can apply for one through Path Forward. In addition, iRelaunch publishes a list of companies that run recurring programs. And don’t forget to look at postings on Glassdoor and LinkedIn.