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Build It Yourself: Approaching an Employer about Developing a Returnship

Are you a relauncher who would love to land a returnship but haven’t been able to? Perhaps there are no returnship programs in your targeted industry or in your commutable radius. Or maybe you want to work for a small employer, and returnships seem more a feature of large employers. Maybe you applied for a returnship but, after a competitive and rigorous selection process, didn’t get an offer.

By Carroll Welch

Carroll Welch is the Founder and Principal of Carroll Welch Consulting, LLC. A career, executive and leadership coach, Carroll supports professionals in all industries on issues involving career and leadership development, transition and reentry. Carroll has extensive experience and expertise supporting relaunchers in planning job searches and anticipating obstacles as they seek to return to the paid workforce after a career break. Carroll is a frequent contributor to the iRelaunch blog and "3, 2, 1, iRelaunch" podcast series.

Instead of giving up on returnships, consider trying to develop your own. It may be worth it: Returnships are highly valuable opportunities for relaunchers. Running approximately three to twelve months, these programs provide structured platforms for getting back into the paid workforce after a career break. Many employers offer skills training or re-training, networking opportunities, coaching, mentoring and/or other forms of support as part of their returnships. While most are available through large employers, small or mid-size employers could be open to the idea but haven’t yet had the need or occasion to develop them. You can change that!

If this sounds appealing but you have no idea how to begin, let’s walk through some possible steps for building your own returnship opportunity through the experience of Denise. She’s a fictitious relauncher from Wellsworth, Missouri, where the nearest corporate returnship program is at a company located two hours away, and not even in her area of interest. Denise had spent over one year trying to relaunch by applying to job postings and networking, but her ten-year career gap and lack of formal experience in her targeted area seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle. She knew that if she could just get a foot in the door and prove herself, she would be able to land a job.

Get clarity on what you want to do.

You can’t develop a returnship for yourself if you don’t know what you want to do. Before approaching an employer about creating one, be prepared to communicate your area(s) of specific interest and how you could potentially fit within their organizational structure.

As a former financial services compliance attorney, Denise knew that she didn’t want to return to that area. Instead, she wanted to work in higher ed administration, preferably in athletics. She’d loved helping her two sons navigate the Division I recruitment process for baseball and soccer, and she’d fundraised and served as an alumna interviewer for her undergrad alma mater. Also, while working as an attorney earlier in her career, she frequently mentored recent grads from her law school through its career services office. Denise loved the higher ed environment and knew it was where she wanted to relaunch.

Leverage warm contacts to approach a targeted employer about returnships.

Phoning or sending a cold email to an employer to ask for a returnship is not the best approach. Instead, use warm connections to help you to get in front of them to propose the idea. With whom should you speak? It depends. A hiring manager, HR or Diversity and Inclusion professional might be logical choices, but a well-placed, receptive employee can also help start a returnship dialogue too. Smaller employers may not even have such staffing, so speak directly to your warm contact. Another possible path to broaching the topic is during an interview process in which an employer is responding positively to your candidacy for a permanent position. Use your good judgment about when and how to do this.

Two universities were within Denise’s commutable radius: Johnson University and Steptoe University. She engaged with both about returnships: At Johnson, she’d had a long and promising interview process for a position in Student Affairs but was ultimately rejected in favor of a candidate with direct experience. Although disappointed, Denise asked the assistant dean in that office for an introduction to the director of athletics at the University. The dean did so enthusiastically, as Denise had been such a strong candidate. In her informational conversation with the athletic director, Denise broached the returnship topic.

At Steptoe University, the second one, a neighbor who was the women’s volleyball coach arranged an introduction for Denise with its athletic director, and she also talked with him about the returnship possibility.

Be prepared to make the case for returnships.

Go into the conversation with the employer prepared to promote the benefits of a returnship arrangement, as it may be a new concept for them. When Denise sat down with the athletic directors to talk about her background and interest in university athletics, she said:

"I understand that you might have hesitation about a bringing on someone with a ten-year career break. One possible way for you to test drive my work and for me to show what I can contribute here is through a six-month returnship position. With my compliance background in financial services, I feel that I already have a lot of analytical and practical skills that are transferable to the NCAA arena. What I need is exposure to NCAA policy and procedure. I’d love to work with one of your two Compliance Coordinators and your Assistant Compliance Director to get some mentoring and training in that area."

In preparing for her conversations, Denise researched and was prepared to talk about returnships, including: how they could be structured; examples of other employers that had them; and how they’re good for business by providing diversity and including a valuable demographic that might otherwise not be represented. She also listened to 3, 2, 1, iRelaunch Podcast No. 77: Disrupternship: What It Means And How It Affects Today’s Relauncherand had informational conversations with two relaunchers whom she’d found on LinkedIn and who’d successfully completed returnships.

Be prepared to make the case for yourself.

Don’t leave the job of figuring out how you could potentially contribute, what you need, or where you could fit in during a returnship to your targeted employer. Do it for them. As seen above, Denise figured out in advance the job titles, type of work and relevant skills that a returnship experience could be built around. This helped her to propose the concept more effectively. She was also prepared to talk about her relevant skills from both her professional and career-break experiences. She connected the dots for the athletic director on how these skills were significant enough that she’d be making a valuable contribution to the athletic department, rather than just asking for the ‘favor’ of being given a returnship.

Conclusion and Best Practice Tips

Things worked out well for Denise, who pioneered a six-month returnship for herself in athletic compliance at Johnson University. She’s hoping that the experience will either lead to a permanent position there or elsewhere, and that her refreshed skills and knowledge, increased confidence and new higher ed contacts will help her to progress in her career.

If you’re thinking about trying to develop your own returnship, consider the following:

  • Be the best, most professional relaunch candidate that you can be. Employers are not likely to want to develop a returnship for a mediocre or sub-par candidate.
  • Use good judgment at all times in your tone, demeanor and approach. Be a good ambassador for returnships, but not overly aggressive or presumptuous about whether they work for a particular employer.
  • Returnship compensation can vary significantly and perhaps be challenging for a relauncher to negotiate without any relevant market data available. If you have any room for flexibility (for the duration of the returnship), it may be helpful.
  • Informational conversations about returnships are a form of networking and a great way to increase your visibility. If your first attempts fail, don’t despair! It’s all a process and you never know where such conversations could lead.

Don't relaunch alone!

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