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EP 226: All About Amazon’s Returnship Program with Alex Mooney

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Episode Description

Alex Mooney is Sr. 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. Join us as Alex describes the features of Amazon Returnship and shares excellent tips on how to frame the career break in an interview.

Read Transcript

Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3, 2, 1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice, and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and Co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. 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's Returnship Program has committed to hiring a thousand returners 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 Carol. Thanks for having me.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Thanks for being here. And I want to know if we can start by asking you to give us an overview of the Amazon Returnship Program.

Alex Mooney: Sure. So the Amazon Returnship Program is an opportunity on ramp for professionals who have paused their careers.

So our program is really designed to help people pick up where they left off. The returnship is paid. It is, on our corporate roles a hundred percent virtual, in our operations roles, we, we do require people in person in that production environment. But for our corporate opportunities, the IT equipment is provided, a hundred percent virtual, as I mentioned, all of our returnships are 16 weeks long in duration.

And, for those who are required to work in site in that production environment and operations, we do provide a relocation assistance for the returnship opportunity. And, subject to performance and feedback throughout the returnship period, those who successfully complete their returnship are offered full-time employment and a competitive compensation and relocation assistance for, for those who might have to relocate to the ultimate hiring location, whether it is for a corporate position or for our operations in the production environment.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Thank you. I have a follow-up question for you about do the returners enter the program in groups and cohorts, or do they come in one by one? And how does that part of it work?

Alex Mooney: Sure. When we designed our returnship program, we worked backward from our candidates as the customer. And one of the things that we learned from speaking with our returnship eligible candidates was that they are unlike university interns and none of them are picking up their careers at one set period of time.

An intern might graduate from a university every spring, the returners are restarting their careers on their own timeline. And we decided early on that we would not operate in a cohort model. Instead we would operate with a rolling recruitment model, really supporting year round employment opportunities so that we can meet those, those professionals where they are in their journey to restarting their career.

Carol Fishman Cohen: It's interesting, that we've seen an evolution there, and there are some programs that have defined cohorts where a group of people start on exactly the same day and they move through the program together. There are programs now that have loose cohorts where people are starting roughly in the same period, maybe in the same quarter.

And now we have programs like you're describing where essentially, you're coming in one by one, but you are entering a returner. Because you now have been running the program, you have a critical mass of returners inside the organization. Is there anything that, anything you have a programming to bring the alumni together with the current returners or how does that part work?

Alex Mooney: Yeah. And you hit the nail on the head there with the word community. The shared experiences that these professionals have in terms of the reasons why they pause their career or, the experiences that they had as they went on that journey to restarting their career, all of those have created a bond among returnship professionals who pause their career for a variety of reasons. And so it's really interesting to watch this community grow within Amazon. Sure, we're not operating in a cohort model. However, it's really fascinating to see that people who have restarted their career and converted to full-time employment, stay engaged in the group chats with the returners who have just started the week prior.

And they get the, those who join the program get direct access to those who have done it before and who are in a variety of life cycles, whether they're an active returner nearing the end of their returnship at Amazon, or they've converted to full-time and their career is headed in a different trajectory.

So there is very much a community here.

Carol Fishman Cohen: As someone who relaunched her career, I relaunched my career and at a time when I relaunched as a very odd one-off hire and no one was even talking about this, but even though that happened so long ago, I still feel so strongly and directly connected to relaunchers who are currently relaunching or, earlier stage. And so I can only imagine that the bonds in that community are very strong and how meaningful it is for the returners who are new in the organization to be part of that community and have the access and the exchange with people who have already gone through the program.

So I bet that's a very powerful part of it. Alex, can we talk about eligibility. Who's eligible? How do you define career break? What's the minimum number of years of career break in order to apply and participate?

Alex Mooney: Sure. So just right off the bat, I want to be very clear that if you pause your career, you are not required to come through our program.

If you click apply on that full time employment opportunity, we call them industry positions, if you click apply and you're interviewed and you get the job and that's the route you want to pursue, power to you. Good luck. We wish you the best. Our program is here for those who might be looking for a, a little bit of a different environment that, that on-ramp opportunity where you have that support from the hiring team, where folks are leaning in.

And what we have found is that the data shows that after two years of unemployment, professionals tend to stand about a 10% chance of getting an offer for full-time employment when they're interviewing against those who are gainfully employed or more recently employed. However, the decline in those offers to people who have paused their career really happens after one year of unemployment.

So we established our minimum eligibility criteria. It has one or more years of unemployment or underemployment. The underemployment component comes in, because again, when we designed a program, we work backward from the candidates as our customers. And what we found is, many of them might've pause their career, but they didn't stop needing an income.

So they took what we call a survival job, some sort of more flexible work to generate some sort of income for them in their family. And we recognize that is, just a natural part of life and the scenario that people find themselves in and we don't penalize people for taking a gig that is more flexible with hours in order to generate some sort of income for them.

Our goal is to get these professionals back to the career that they had before they hit pause.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So I just want to underscore this for our listeners that, don't self-select out of the program because somehow you think you're not qualified. I, I really appreciate what Alex is describing here in terms of different scenarios, under employment that, different definitions of career break.

Let Amazon decide if you're eligible. Is it, is that, does that sound consistent with how you think about it?

Alex Mooney: Absolutely. In fact, we expect people to take survival jobs. Simply because you've been gainfully employed, don't look at that one year of unemployment or one or more years of unemployment as a discounting factor.

Consider yourself you might be underemployed because your professional career, may not be where you're currently working. You might be just generating an income for your family with a more flexible hours or more flexible work opportunity. We're here to help you get back to doing what you were doing.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I have a question about when people are going, are at the beginning of the application process, do you ask like pre-qualifying questions, have you taken a career break of two years and where do they have to answer that kind of question before they move forward in the application process online?

Alex Mooney: Not at all.

It's a standard application process. You simply click apply, upload your resume and in our recruiters will review your resume and really vet your eligibility. And reach out to you, if you meet the eligibility criteria. I think the key thing for the applicants to know is that we recognize that people pause their career for a variety of life circumstances.

Some of them planned, some of them unplanned. And so where are you on your career might differ from your neighbor next door who paused their career. And so our job requisitions post the minimum eligibility criteria as three or more years of experience in a given field. However, we have folks who, on average, have about 10 years of professional experience.

That's what we're finding. And on average, about five years away from their career. But we've had folks who have 20 years of professional experience and 12 years away from their career, or what have you. So that minimum eligibility, those basic qualifications of three or more years in your field, really, that's just the floor of the opportunity.

And we're interested in evaluating candidates on a case by case scenario so that we place them in the right roles in right employment levels at Amazon.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So are you saying then, that there are roles for people who h ave had three years of experience, like relatively early stage and roles for people who are truly mid-career and even senior who

have taken career breaks?

Alex Mooney: In fact, the vast majority of the professionals that we hire into our returnship program are squarely mid career, with the next highest population being more senior career. And then the, population is some of that early career talent. So it's across the spectrum.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah, that, that emphasis is very consistent with the seniority and number of years of career break that we see in our conference attendee population at iRelaunch.

I'm not surprised to hear that, but I'm really glad that to hear that the roles are available, because that's a question that we get, as for people who have had more experience, are they gonna find roles that are appropriate for them? Thank you for addressing that. So can you talk a little bit more about the recruiting process?

Do people have to do any kind of a video screen or, any special kind of interviews along the way?

Alex Mooney: Sure. Internally, I guess now externally, now that we're doing these podcasts is, we refer to our recruiters as talent agents because unlike industry recruiters who have goals based on high volume hiring and they move through candidates quickly and that's the way they operate, which is totally fine and appropriate for that scenario, our recruiters are really focusing in on helping people dust off the rust and the rest, pertaining to, their familiarity with interviewing, the rest pertaining to their skillsets, et cetera. And upfront, from the start, our candidates find that the recruiters really spend a significant amount of time, acting as a talent agent, really helping them think about what were you doing before you paused your career?

What data speaks to, the efforts that you were engaged in and the results that you created, and how might we translate that into your ability to respond to the interview questions. So they spent a lot of time with the candidates up front, prepping them with the interview. The interview itself is more lightweight than the standard interview process at Amazon.

We do start with one phone screen with the business and really that's to assess any sort of technical skills that might be required. So if you're in finance, let's just do a quick run through of your familiarity with Microsoft Excel. If you are in a technical position, they'll do a whiteboard assessment to really figure out, do you have the aptitude for, are you listening and asking the right questions and taking hints when it comes to technical design. And it's not the binary pass fail that might come through an online assessment. It's really, let's look at your aptitude. Let's look at your potential. So that's the business phone screen, and then we have two final round interviews and that's with the hiring manager and somebody else from the team.

So after really three, brief interviews, then, we are in a position to determine whether or not we make an offer and those who make the offer, we work with them on the start date to make sure that it's a comfortable start date for them. And we're off to the races.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So it sounds like these talent agents are almost acting as unofficial coaches, guiding people through the process.

And I love the idea that you are looking at people in terms of their potential. So that I think that's very unique. It's very meaningful to our audience. Thank you for talking about that piece of it. What about upskilling or reskilling? Are you, does it, do people stand out if they're already taking courses?

If does it matter if they're like a free edX or a Coursera course versus a, some official credentialing program or some kind of certificate. Any guidance there on what kind of upskilling or re-skilling and whether it's, it makes a difference or not.

Alex Mooney: Yeah. It certainly does make a difference when you are a lifelong learner and you take opportunities to enhance your skill sets, upscale or reskill, what have you, but we're not terribly concerned about that being an eligibility criteria. It's always nice to have it, certainly from the candidates perspective helps you mentally shift and rethink about the field in which you operate and to stay relevant. All of that is, is certainly commendable, but not required.

But as it relates to, really the skill sets that we're looking for each job that we're hiring for, we focusing on assessing whether or not you have the fundamentals for the position. So if you're a business analyst, do you have the analytics fundamentals? Are you familiar with advanced Microsoft Excel?

Do you have any sort of exposure to dashboarding or SQL data mining, those sorts of things. Similarly finance, do you have the financial acumen. Software development, do you have the computer science background? So on and

Carol Fishman Cohen: Makes sense. We always think that, that courses are powerful signaling to an employer about how serious you are about returning to work and also can really help build your confidence if you feel that you have up-skilled so that all of that broadly helps a candidacy, but thank you for the details on, on, on your perspective there. All so can you, can we jump to what happens at the end of the program? So can you talk to us about, statistics on what percentage of the people who complete the program then get hired?

Alex Mooney: Sure. So our program north stars are twofold.

The first one being, what is the net promoter score from the returner? So the returners response to, I would recommend Amazon as a great place to restart your career. And then the second one being a, we want to convert a minimum of 90% or more to full time and so both north stars being 90% or better.

And so by focusing in at 90% or better converting to full-time, that allows us to lean in and bring in more professionals who might be a little bit more rusty with their skillset, while also ensuring that our program is setting them up for success. Backward from the end of the returnship, we're really talking about the capstone project and hiring debrief is what we call it because the end of the returnship is when we make that decision on whether or not we will hire the person full-time. The capstone project is not prescribed because we want it to be applicable and relevant to whatever role the returner is in, whatever business they're working for. So if you're in software development, it might just consist of a code review to evaluate the quality of the code that you've written and shipped.

For finance, it might be, you've identified a cost savings opportunity and you wrote a paper and you've presented the paper and that's your capstone. So again, we want it to be real, tangible, substantive and relevant. And then that capstone presentation is presented to the hiring manager. And the mentor. And then at Amazon, we have a role in the interview process called a bar raiser.

And they're really there to make sure that we're continually raising the bar on the quality of talent that we're bringing into the company. And so that bar raiser sits in on a capstone presentation as well. And then once the presentation concludes, the manager, the mentor, or the bar raiser, they have their hiring decision debrief and we determine whether or not to make an offer for full-time employment.

Part of that debrief also includes an evaluation. And the evaluation is both the returner self evaluation, as well as the hiring manager's evaluation. And really this is an opportunity for us to calibrate on the level of performance that was demonstrated throughout the returnship period and assess where the person, the returner feels that they're performing well and where they have opportunities for improvement. And same thing on the manager side, and really to figure out are we on the same page as we head into that full-time employment opportunity. Have we identified the things that we need to double down on in terms of strengths and then what the opportunities are we going to be leaning in there and helping people with their career trajectory, onward and upward.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay. There's a lot there. So people are, have this capstone project as part of their experience, and I love the, the way you describe it, real, tangible, substantive, meaningful work and, and that, that, that project is something that, that, has all of those attributes.

And then just as a side note, the conversion rates that you're talking about have over 90%, I just want to note for our audience that's way over average, way over what's already a high average. On average, we see conversion rates, which is the percentage of people who get hired when a program completes a returnship program completes is over 80%, but you're over 90%.

That's very significant. Al ex, can you, you had said something about, people coming in, like on a rolling basis. And so does this might be an obvious question, but does that mean that applications are always open whenever you go to the landing page for Amazon Returnship or are there certain times of the year when they're closed?

Alex Mooney: That's right. They're always open. So That's where you could see our open positions. We are recruiting year round and accepting applications on a daily basis.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And if people apply for one role and they get rejected or they don't move forward in the process, and then later they see a different role, what's your advice in terms of do you apply more than once. How much is too much in terms of multiple applications?

Alex Mooney: Sure. We encourage applications again, for both industry positions, but specifically for our Returnship Program, we absolutely encourage you to apply. And if you feel that your skillset is a better match for one role versus another, or maybe multiple roles, click apply on all those that you believe are relevant.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay, very helpful. And I want to finish up by asking you the question that we ask all of our podcast guests, and that is what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience, even if it's something that we've already talked about today?

Alex Mooney: I have a couple of pieces of advice here. One is the age old advice for anybody who has paused their career is, show you're still relevant, and that's absolutely true. We encourage you to practice within your field, keep your skills relevant. If you have the luxury of time and the ability to do not all folks who pause their career have that ability or that luxury of time. That said, your resume, make it easy for the recruiter to understand that you've paused your career.

What we find is that age old advice of, show you're still relevant, often ends up in resumes being masked. And so it's very difficult for our recruiters to see who paused their career or who's underemployed. So you might include in your executive summary at the top of your resume that you have X number of years of professional experience in X field, you paused your career and now you are restarting your career. Something that makes it very clear to the recruiter or the resume reader to know that you did intentionally click apply on that returnship requisition, because you believe that you're eligible for it. Because as you might imagine, Amazon has a lot of jobs open, and so we get a lot of applicants who are better fit for industry recruitment, who did not actually pause their career. And so we just want to make sure that your resume stands out. That's the first piece of advice.

The second piece of advice is, when you're thinking about interviewing, the industry standard now is behavioral based interview questions. So, "Tell me about a time when," is a common way to phrase the interview question. So if you have not interviewed in a while, you might consider looking up behavioral based interview questions, and learning how to phrase your response using the STAR method, so Situation, Task, Action, Result. And this is more and more the standard of interviewing within corporate America at least. And you can get a little bit of a headstart by brushing up on behavioral based interview questions and then acquainting yourself with the style of response, which is the situation, task action, result, the STAR method.

Again, a lot of information out there, just search for it on the internet, and you'll find some examples.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Great advice. I just want to ask a follow-up, on the one where you're talking about, make it obvious that you paused your career. We advise relaunchers to actually call out the career break, 2015 to the present under, as the first entry under experience and then under that, bullet point some of the things that you've been doing, even if it's that side gig. Does is that helpful to the recruiters to start to see the words career break, and then they know for sure that they're talking to someone who's eligible?

Alex Mooney: Carol, that would be ideal. So many resumes we receive, it's understandable, the labor market is tough. It's the employers tend to prioritize those who are gainfully or more recently employed. And so when you're clicking on those jobs and you're clicking apply, you want to show your resume as being relevant and unfortunately, those returnship eligible candidates who find their way to our program, when they use that same resume, it makes it really difficult for our recruiters to clearly see that yes, you are eligible.

To that end, have a returnship resume. And if you're applying to full-time jobs and you find that strategy is working to get you interviews, to have a more robust resume that does not call out the career break, go for it. But for us, we want it to see that you're absolutely right.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I just have to say that complete reframing of the career break, how it used to be. You didn't, you did not want to show it on your resume and now you have to show it in or you're, it's, you're better off showing it, to be eligible, to apply for and participate in Amazon returnships. So I love that. Alex, thank you so much for joining us today. I've learned so much.

Alex Mooney: Thanks, Carol. Thanks for having me.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And thanks for listening to 3, 2, 1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice, and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the CEO and Co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. For more information on iRelaunch conferences and events, to sign up for our job board and access our return to work tools and resources go to

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