Here’s how a software company’s trailblazing returnship program is attracting those out of the workforce—and providing strong ROI in the process.
By Stacy Critzer
A little more than two years ago, software solutions company Unanet implemented a unique program designed to tap into a segment of the talent pool that relatively few organizations have explored.
Leaders created a “returnship” program called “Encore” that recruits people with previous professional experience who have been out of the workforce for an extended period. The program provides training to either re-enter their respective fields or enter an entirely new sector. After completing the program, “graduates” either shift into a full-time role with the company or seek employment elsewhere. Today, Unanet is among only about 200 U.S. companies that offer a returnship program, according to Path Forward, a non-profit organization that promotes the concept.
The positive outcomes the program is yielding for participants, as well as the company, suggest that returnships are worth pursuing.
When Unanet’s leadership team green-lighted “Encore” in 2021, it was for several reasons. Being a woman-founded company played a major role in the desire to elevate females who experienced steeper job losses than men early in the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Path Forward, women are 12 times more likely to put their careers on hold for caregiving reasons.
The company also believed that the program would help source quality talent in a largely overlooked segment of the market. In fact, team leaders report that the talent the program produces often consists of fast learners who fit right into the company’s culture and work style. “Encore” is also being used to fulfill DEI goals while raising brand awareness.
Unanet is among only about 200 U.S. companies that offer a returnship program.
Keys to a Successful Returnship Program
Here are seven recommendations for creating a returnship program that will lead to success.
1. Define the types of candidates and the skills suited for the program. For instance, “Encore” focuses on women who want to re-enter the workforce after an extended hiatus. In shaping the parameters of the program, leaders have learned that providing participants with baseline business communications and technology skills is critical, whether it’s composing a professional email or building a PowerPoint deck. Recently, the company has refined “Encore” to focus on the following.
- Strengthen resiliency to manage the stress, anxiety, and change that comes with returning to the workforce.
- Combat imposter syndrome and increase self-confidence with a growth mindset.
- Operate in a virtual/hybrid work environment and expand connections.
- Successfully transition from an in-person environment to a remote/hybrid environment while boosting productivity.
- Grow the professional circle through intentional connection, collaboration, networking, and community involvement.
- Conduct informational interviews to learn more about other people and their roles.
- Develop new and existing relationships.
2. Secure leadership buy-in early. Getting the Unanet executive team onboard with returnships has been essential to the program’s success. Advocates for the program made this possible by explaining what it would entail and building a clear case for why it’s a good fit for the company.
3. Align the program with the markets the organization serves. For Unanet, opening the returnship program to ex-military personnel makes sense because one of Unanet’s key markets—government contractors—caters to the military and Department of Defense.
4. Brand the program. There’s been a noteworthy uptick in interest in the program since it was officially dubbed “Encore.”
Women are 12 times more likely to put their careers on hold for caregiving reasons.
5. Build alliances with kindred organizations. Aligning with organizations such as local women’s centers, women-in-technology organizations, and veterans resource groups has helped spread the word about “Encore,” which has assisted with recruitment
6. Measure the progress and impact of the program, and adjust as needed. Being diligent about gathering feedback from participants and the people who manage them has enabled Unanet to improve the program on the fly. Using surveys, one-on-one touchbases, and other feedback channels, leaders are consistently measuring whether the program is meeting the needs of recruits and the business. This feedback has helped create a more effective training program.
7. Be flexible in how success is defined. Whether “Encore” graduates stay with the company or move on after completing the program, their participation is deemed a success if it leads to employment. According to a recent study by ResumeBuilder.com, 35% of women who became unemployed during the pandemic are still out of work. Returnship programs not only provide them with a viable pathway back to the workforce, it brings companies a resource that today is in short supply: quality talent.
The results from “Encore” have been so encouraging that the company is now looking to expand it. Just this spring, the talent acquisition team started recruiting directly for full-time entry-level positions, and also plans to build more flexibility into the program to include even more people who would typically be overlooked.
Stacy Critzer is chief human resources officer for Unanet.