business woman


My Take

At first, I was intrigued by the idea of a “returnship”. Lots of companies are experimenting with them. This is a parallel with an internship but for more senior employees. But also with some key differences that lead Working Mothers to think they are a bad idea.

A recent study found that 70% of women fear taking a career break. From my experience at Women Returners working with returning professionals, I know that many are low in confidence and feel it is impossible to find a satisfying corporate role after many years out. Is the returnship an innovative solution to enable these talented women to get back into senior roles?

A returnship is an unpaid, short term position that is designed for employees who take a prolonged absence from their field. The absence could have been for starting a family, caring for an elderly parent, or seeing the world. But the gap means that their knowledge may be obsolete; their skills might be rusty; their awareness of the industry may be dated. Companies might be hesitant to take the risk. A returnship allows them to get back up to speed while minimizing the risk to the company.

As someone who interacts with students who are constantly looking for internships, I can appreciate the attractiveness of the opportunity to get work experience. The actual experience as well as the entry on the resume (or as I prefer, the portfolio), are incredibly helpful when students enter the job market. I can see many parallels with returnships.

As a forensic practitioner, I am concerned with the legal implications for the company. With internships, companies have to be very careful to make sure that they are providing their intern with a valid learning experience that is at least as valuable as the work product they are getting in return. There is not much common law about the returnship. I wonder if the courts will treat them the same.

As an employer (contracting in general), I really enjoy bringing in interns. Because of my educational background, I don’t have any problem making sure it is a learning experience. And the more the intern learns, the more work product I can ask them to do in return. It really is one of those proverbial win-win relationships. Plus, they often have new ideas and lots of energy (or is that lots of ideas and new energy?).

But of course, it is with my human factors hat on that I bring this to your attention. Despite the parallel with the internship, the returnship also has some significant differences. We would expect the employee to get up to speed and take on more serious responsibilities pretty quickly. But is that true? And for what kinds of job skills?

We can use the Recognition Primed Decision making model (link to to set up a strawman and see if we can knock it down. How many of the employee’s existing problem schema will transfer to the current state of the industry? Given the unconscious nature of RPD thinking, can a returnship employee modify the ones they have to meet new needs and new situations? New customer expectations or workplace cultures?

Your Turn

There is no research on returnships specifically. I wonder if there is anything similar in areas such as military training? I can imagine some battlefield knowledge getting rusty between conflicts and needing to be updated pretty quickly. Or maybe a pilot that hasn’t flown a particular kind of plane for many years and switches back? I am not sure how similar these situations are, so I would appreciate your insights.

Do you have any experience with returnships? Or any parallels? What do you think of the idea?

Image Credit: Steve Wilson

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