Everything employers need to know about launching and expanding returnships and return to work programs
Scaling the Amazon Returnship Program with a Goal to Hire 1,000 Relaunchers
Alex Mooney is Senior Manager of DEI Talent Acquisition Programs and a 12 year Amazonian serving in increasingly senior HR roles, most recently in innovative talent pipelines and DEI talent acquisition. He is the founder of the Amazon Returnship Program and leads other global talent acquisition programs. Under Alex’s leadership, Amazon Returnship has committed to hiring 1,000 returners over the next few years. In this episode, Alex discusses the major features of the program, including eligibility requirements, Amazon's unique approach to returnship recruitment, and the types of programming and support that are in place for the returner participants. He also describes the institutional shift that has taken place in which hiring managers are eager to hire relaunchers.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3, 2, 1 iRelaunch, Employer Edition. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and Co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. In this podcast series for employers, we will discuss the most important topics in launching, running and expanding employer return to work programs, whether your organization is starting a return to work program, has piloted one or is running a mature program, our goal is to share innovations and best practices in an effort to hire and support as many Relaunchers as possible. Today, we welcome Alex Mooney of Amazon. Alex is a senior manager of DEI talent acquisition programs, and a 12 year Amazonian serving in increasingly senior HR roles, most recently in innovative talent pipelines and DEI talent acquisition. Alex is the founder of the Amazon Returnship Program and leads other global talent acquisition programs. Under Alex's leadership, Amazon Returnship has committed to hiring a thousand Relaunchers over the next few years. His team of dedicated talent agents, help candidates refresh their interviewing skills and translate their competencies into Amazon's leadership principles and coach hiring teams to interview and assess candidates based on their potential rather than on their resume or current skills.
Alex's prior experience includes human resources related positions across Amazon, Samsung, and Sprint. Alex, welcome to 3, 2, 1 iRelaunch.
Alex Mooney: Thanks for having me.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Thanks for being here, and maybe we could start with asking you to share with us the major features of the Amazon Returnship Program and what types of programming and support are in place for the people who participate in the program.
Alex Mooney: At a high level, the Amazon Returnship Program is it's not an apprenticeship. We are not here to certify competencies and skillsets, re-skill professionals into a different profession and really give them that stamp of approval on you, you're now competent in a different job. Our program is designed to help people pick up where they left off on their career.
The major features of the Amazon Returnship Program really begins with our customer first sort of approach. So we worked backward from the candidates and we worked backwards from the hiring teams in order to create a solution that was beneficial for everybody involved. And by that, we completely separated returnship recruitment from standard industry recruitment. And by doing that, we were able to create a an opportunity that is thought about differently for everybody involved. For the returners, it's truly, we're going to think about your candidacy in a different way. We're going to lean in, focus in on screening in versus screening out.
And for the hiring teams, it's a really easier way for us to help calibrate the interviewers and hiring managers on the style of interviewing that we use. Talking about the major features it's let's segment this population of professionals and treat their employment and candidacy a little bit different than we do industry recruiters.
And with that, we also have a few other opportunities. The way that we structure the employment opportunity is that it's more of a time-bound contingent employment scenario as opposed to a direct full-time hire. And the reason that we do that is because, we want to approach our program as really a low risk try before you buy for both the candidate, as well as the hiring team.
For the candidates, we know that Amazon is not for everybody. We like to describe our ways as peculiar and some folks enjoy that, and others may not find that Amazon is there, the long-term opportunity for them. And so we don't want to put them in a position where they're now full-time employed and on this trajectory that after they brush off any rust that accumulated on their skillsets and they get back into the swing of things, maybe Amazon's not the right thing for them.
For the hiring teams, we want them to have that again, low risk try before you buy safe bet scenario where they can feel comfortable leaning in. So this contingent employment scenario is beneficial on both sides. By virtue of that, one of the features that emerges is for the candidate, because it is a contingent employment scenario, they now have their performance entirely evaluated based on the work that they produced during that returnship period, as opposed to a full-time hire, who is thrown into the annual talent review cycle, alongside peers who have been in the swing of things in working in that field more recently more actively developing their competencies and skillsets, whereas the person who is restarting their career needs some time to ramp back to what they're doing before.
So the contingent employment scenario is one of the main features. When you get into the weeds of it, how else have we worked backward from the customer for our corporate roles? If the opportunities are a hundred percent virtual, we recognize that picking up and moving to a hiring location for maybe opportunity in the corporate environment is not necessarily all that approachable for folks, especially knowing that many of them whatever caused them to pause their career, also probably involved establishing roots in their community. And by that if you pause your career to raise children, you likely have your daycare providers.
If you pause your career because you were ill or injured, you have your doctors in the area. So on and so forth, there are many different reasons why people pause their careers. But we recognize that as you're restarting your career, we want our program to be as less disruptive as possible. So for our corporate roles, a hundred percent virtual, IT equipment provided by Amazon.
And then assuming that you do well subject to performance and feedback throughout your employment period, then you receive that offer for full time employment. All of our returnships are paid, they're paid competitively. And for the latest addition to our program in our operation side of the house, we actually do have in-person employment opportunities for our fulfillment centers. This is a little bit different than our corporate environment because if you could imagine working remotely in a production environment, you do need to be there. But the thing that we have at our advantage at Amazon is that there's likely a fulfillment center near you.
So again, we can place you in a location where you may not have to relocate for that limited time, contingent employment opportunity. Additional features include every returner is required to have a strong project plan that is developed in advance of their start. And so on their first day, they receive their project plan, they meet with their mentor, their manager, and their onboarding buddy, that sort of trifecta is required for every returner that we hire. And, attached to the returner throughout their returnship period. And then at the end of the returnship period, we evaluate does this person raise the bar for performance and do they receive a full-time employment offer?
All of our full-time employment offers are competitive and negotiated as any full-time offer would be.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow, Alex, that was a lot of information. And I have a few follow up questions. The first one is just a clarification on the corporate roles that you said were a hundred percent virtual. What happens when the returnship part of it is over in terms of remote or not remote or hybrid?
Alex Mooney: So it's really dependent on the business for which the returner is working for. Our goal is to convert them into full-time positions on the same team, in the same organization. With COVID having disrupted the labor market, the way that employers are approaching returning to the office varies in at Amazon, we have not prescribed one size fits all sort of approach to return to the office. So it may be that the returner can continue working virtually as a full-time employee or in the event where we do require them to be within a commuting distance of an office, we would then provide relocation assistance.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Got it. All right. The other thing that is so impressive about what you're talking about in terms of a completely separate returnship recruiting process from your standard industry recruiting, that combined with the announcement about going to a thousand Relaunchers really signals that this is a, I don't want to say permanent but a very its own established talent acquisition pipeline with customized elements to it and you're in it for the long term. And I wanted to know if you can talk a little bit about the, which lines of business are involved and a little bit about the history and how the program has gotten to where it is today.
Alex Mooney: Absolutely. And, the investments that we're making in this space is really a testament to Amazon striving to be Earth's best employer is our, one of our latest leadership principles. And by that, this program is truly designed to create more equitable employment access to populations of professionals who have often been overlooked or underserved.
So our program is designed for these professionals who have paused their career for a variety of reasons. Going back to your question around which businesses are participating, we are constantly adding new Amazon businesses as we scale and add new job families to the Returnship Program that is inclusive of Amazon overall, as well as our acquisitions like Ring, the home security company, et cetera.
So there are plenty of opportunities across the company. With respect to the question around the evolution of the program, we have tried returnships for several years prior to our program centralized in scaling. And we had a few different flavors of how we are approaching returnships.
But when we launched the Amazon Returnship Program, we took input from, as I mentioned, the candidates as our customers, the hiring teams as our customers, but then we also looked at the recruiters and the way that they were operating and we realized that returnship recruitment, if approach differently, could achieve much different results.
And so we really worked backward from that experience to learn from what we had done before and then build the program that would really benefit our customers overall. And so that's where some of those components that I mentioned before the features that I mentioned before really came into play in terms of working backward from all of our stakeholders.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. That's super interesting. And so impressive. And I'm really blown away. I want to I'm thinking though, about what you said about the sort of this big objective is to create a hiring pipeline for people who are high caliber and good, excellent performers, but who have been overlooked or underserved as you described it.
And I wanted to know how does that translate into your eligibility requirements? You're looking to hire a lot of people. So how do you define career break? What's the minimum career break, and are there any other eligibility requirements that you've or guidelines that you've loosened or established in order to be consistent with the goal of this program?
Alex Mooney: Absolutely. And again, this kind of came from working backward from the customer. The data shows that at two years of unemployment, the chance of an individual receiving an offer for a full-time position when interviewing against others who are gainfully employed or more recently employed is less than 10%, which is just an astounding figure.
And that's where the opportunity, for those who are unemployed, really falls off a cliff. But we dug deeper into that and we found that really after one year of employment is when the likelihood of gaining a full-time job really begins to decrease. And so we structured our eligibility criteria as a minimum of one year of unemployment or underemployment. And the underemployment component comes from our focus groups with the returnship eligible population. What we found was they might have paused their career, again for a variety of life scenarios life events, but they didn't stop needing an income. And so they'll take a position or a role that's more flexible in order to generate some income for themselves and their family.
And we often refer to these as survival jobs. So our goal is to get the professional back to the career they had. And by virtue of including the eligibility criteria of underemployment, we're not penalizing them for taking a job to generate an income for them and their family.
Carol Fishman Cohen: All right. So you're saying they could have a consistent income stream, but were underemployed and therefore would still be eligible. They could be doing occasional consulting or substitute teaching or some something where, there is maybe a, like a lumpy and unpredictable income stream. But that still allows them to be eligible. And you're still encouraging people who are in any of those categories to apply for the program.
Alex Mooney: That's right.
So a few examples of a side gig opportunities that some of the professionals have taken include physical trainers. We've had a substitute teacher in accounting trying to stay relevant in their field and show that they're still practicing their finance acumen. We've had volunteers at nonprofits. We've had a part-time Whole Food shopper. It runs the range of what's really available for you on your schedule in order to generate some form of income for you and your family. And again, we recognize that, that's a real scenario. Simply because you paused your career doesn't mean you stop needing an income and we don't want to penalize people for taking those survival jobs.
Carol Fishman Cohen: All right, so I want to wind up here, ask you just a couple more questions. One of them is with all of this expansion of the program, it of course means that you need to get more and more managers involved. And I wanted to know if you could describe for us the kinds of internal conversations you have to get heads of lines of business and managers in those business units to participate in the program.
Alex Mooney: It's interesting, because many people have asked this question and the problem is not actually the internal interest. The managers at Amazon are knocking on our door on a daily basis. And I kid you not, that is not an exaggeration. It is literally a daily basis where managers are coming to us saying, Hey, how do I hire a returner?
They hear the mission and they hear what it is that we're doing and the results speak for themselves. The professionals that we're hiring are very talented. They just need that opportunity on ramp. And so our managers want to be a part of that. That said, when we initially kicked off the program, we purposefully aligned with a framework that the managers were familiar with.
And that is an internship framework. Many of our managers have either hired an intern or mentored an intern at some point in their career and familiar with this opportunity that they're engaging with. So by positioning it as nearly identical to an internship with a few components that differ slightly because clearly these are talented professionals who have been who have developed strong careers, they're not graduating from a university. But by aligning to that internship framework, we remove mental barriers for the managers, such as am I committing to an unknown here? I don't know about this person's performance and we're saying, no, this is a contingent employment period. So you're not committing long-term to anything. It's a let's get to know each other sort of scenario and then we'll figure out if that long-term employment opportunity is the right one for your returner.
So using that framework that they're familiar with removes some of those mental barriers, it allows people to lean in, trust the the situation at hand. And really, like I said, the program has gained such a reputation that now we're having to turn away more people than we can actually put through the program.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. I have to say hearing that makes me feel very emotional. Having been working in this field for so long and the goal has always been to see an institutional shift happening on inside companies with managers. And that's really where it's at. And, w where you have the managers moving from feeling skeptical or questioning about it, to being, seeing a lot of success stories, to seeing a lot of great examples of the potential, and then being really excited and wanting to engage and asking to be engaged.
That, that shift in itself is very significant. I'm thrilled to hear about it. And that it's going on on a large scale. And I guess the other thing is that, originally the returnship was all about risk, and that it was risky to hire someone who was coming off of career break.
And now we're at the point where there's so much data around the success of the returnship model that I think that the risk profile, the risk perception, has really decreased significantly over time. And you're seeing the results. All so Alex I, we have so much to talk about, but I want to wind up now and see if there is any closing advice that you have for organizations that are thinking about piloting a or maybe even reinventing an existing program or piloting a brand new program.
Alex Mooney: Sure. I think you used the keyword there and that's program. It's not enough to simply post a job and say, if you've been unemployed, click apply. These professionals need the supportive environment to create that on ramp, back to what they were doing before. It's not a monumental challenge. It's just that there might be a little bit of rust on their skillsets.
They need to acclimate to that corporate environment again. And by really creating that program, you set them up for success and internally, if you're asking your recruiters to do this off the side of their desk while their full-time job is industry recruitment and filling those roles coaxing people away from gainful employment, it's an entirely different body of work. And so you're not doing your recruiters justice either by asking them to stretch into the returnship space. The program is key in thinking about it end to end in exactly what sort of support every stakeholder involved requires, is the best way to go about this in my opinion.
Carol Fishman Cohen: I totally agree with you. It's a great point. Alex, thank you so much for everything you're doing to further the hiring of more and more Relaunchers and thanks for joining us today.
Alex Mooney: Thanks Carol. Thanks for having me.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And thanks for listening to 3, 2, 1 iRelaunch, Employer Edition. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the CEO and Co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. iRelaunch is recognized by SHRM to offer professional development credits, PDCs, for SHRM-CP® or SHRM-SCP®, and each episode of our Employer Edition of the 3, 2, 1 iRelaunch podcast is approved for .25 SHRM professional development credits. The activity ID for this episode is 23-UMT69.
Also be sure to check out the irelaunch.com website, where we have a special section dedicated to employers, all sorts of tools and resources, including a section on making the business case for an employer return to work program, which we invite you to cut and paste and use in any proposals that you might be making inside your organization to start a return to work program.
Thanks for joining us.
Approved for .25 Professional Development Credits
iRelaunch is recognized by SHRM to offer Professional Development Credits (PDCs) for SHRM-CP® or SHRM-SCP®. Each episode of iRelaunch's 3, 2, 1 Podcast, Employer Edition is approved for .25 Professional Development Credits. To receive the activity ID for each episode, please join our iRelaunch Employer Community Group on LinkedIn for instructions on where to find this ID.