How returnship programs help women — and deliver strong ROI to the companies that invest in them
By Stacy Critzer, chief human resources officer for Unanet
Back in 2021, at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Vicki landed a position as an entry-level graphic designer in the marketing department at the software company for which I work.
Vicki hadn’t come to us through traditional hiring channels, but rather as the first “graduate” of a then brand-new returnship program at Unanet, where we bring in people with previous professional experience who have been out of work for an extended period and provide them with training, reskilling or upskilling, with the goal of sending them back into the workforce either at our company or elsewhere.
We launched the program when we did for several reasons. First, we were well aware the pandemic was taking a toll on working women, who experienced steeper job losses than men early in the health crisis. As a company that cares deeply about diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace, the program, which we later dubbed “Encore,” fit well with our company ethos and culture, particularly given our status as a woman-founded company. What’s more, I and others on the Unanet leadership team believed the program would open new avenues for finding quality people at a time when talent isn’t easy to come by.
Two years in, the Encore program has surpassed expectations in all those areas. Vicki is still with us, thriving in a full-time graphic designer role after completing the 12-week returnship program, where she got intensive training on core design and business tech tools, along with practical communications skills development and perhaps most importantly, one-on-one mentoring and coaching. We’ve since had several other people participate in the program, some who have stuck with our company and others who have landed positions elsewhere.
The Encore program has indeed enabled us to find quality people in places we otherwise may not have looked. Team leaders tell me they love the program because the people who come through it tend to be fast learners who quickly acclimate to the culture and pace of our business. What’s more, the program not only fits with our DEI goals, it also has raised awareness of the Unanet brand. I regularly get inquiries from talented returnship candidates who have heard about Encore and are interested in participating.
The early returns from Encore have been so encouraging that I and the Unanet leadership team are seriously considering expanding the program. We’re looking at potentially recruiting directly for full-time entry-level positions, and at loosening certain program guidelines to expand the candidate pool, such as the requirement that candidates be out of the workforce for a minimum of 12 months, and that they have an undergraduate degree from an accredited college or university. Doing so would enable us to reach talented people like the woman who contacted me recently, expressing her interest in joining the Encore program. She’s freshly retired from the U.S. Navy, and after bouncing around for years as part of a military family, ready to find work that will enable her to settle in one place. The two of us are staying in touch, because she seems like a great fit for the program.
We’re well aware that there are plenty of people like her who are primed to return to the workforce. According to a recent study by ResumeBuilder.com, 35% of women who became unemployed during the pandemic are still out of work. We’re also aware that opportunities through programs like Encore remain pretty scarce. Christine Winston, acting executive director at Path Forward, a non-profit organization that helps companies and workers connect via returnship programs, recently estimated that just 200 to 225 U.S. companies have offered or currently offer returnship programs.
My hope is that more organizations follow suit. How to give a returnship program the best of chance of succeeding? Now that we have a couple years under our belts with Encore, here are some recommendations:
- Ensure the program meets participants where they are in terms of basic business and technology skills, communications skills, etc. Be open-minded and don’t assume a certain baseline of skills and knowledge.
- Get internal buy-in. We made sure we got our executive team onboard by explaining to them what a returnship program entails and why it’s a good fit for Unanet culturally and strategically.
- Build alliances with kindred organizations. To get the word out and help recruit, we aligned with local women’s centers and women in technology organizations. Their networks, job fairs and promotional support have been critical to the program’s success.
- Brand the program. Our program became stickier in terms of interest from candidates once we officially branded it “Encore.”
- Align the program so it connects with markets your organization serves. Opening our returnship program to ex-military personnel fits with one of our key markets, government contractors who serve the U.S. Department of Defense.
- Consistently solicit feedback from people involved in the program to gauge its effectiveness. That includes program recruits as well as the team leaders who work closely with those recruits. We’re constantly measuring whether the program is meeting the needs of recruits and the business, with a lot of surveying and check-ins to solicit feedback and ensure the program is fulfilling expectations.
- Be flexible and willing to adjust the program based on experience and feedback.
Two years into the Encore program, we have every reason to continue to invest in and grow it. It’s a valuable recruiting tool that makes a positive impact on how the Unanet brand is perceived in the marketplace, helping to cement our reputation as a company that people want to work for — and that customers want to do business with. But most importantly, it truly makes a difference in the lives of the women who participate in it.
Stacy Critzer is chief human resources officer for Unanet, a Northern Virginia company that creates business software solutions for government contractors, and for architecture, engineering, construction and professional services firms.