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Four ways “returnships” can boost a company’s workforce talent pool

The pandemic led to more people taking a break from the workforce. Returnships can help ease the transition back and widen the talent pool.

In brief

  • More professionals are taking breaks from their careers than ever before to focus on personal commitments in the wake of the pandemic.
  • Returnships allow employers to build a pipeline of highly motivated and skilled talent who are typically overlooked in the recruitment process.
  • Companies with returnships send a clear message about their commitment to diversity, flexibility and investing in people.

Labor fluctuations brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic are challenging organizations’ abilities to retain and attract high-caliber talent. In fact, the pandemic has caused nearly 1.8 million women and 1.75 million men to leave the labor force since February 2020.[¹]

Many of them are likely to remain out of the workforce for years, as career gaps make it increasingly difficult to return to the world of work. Returnships —  structured return-to-work programs designed to recruit and reskill mid- to senior-level professionals — can help ease the transition back to the workforce and help companies strengthen their talent pool.


Career gaps are not new — women, in particular, have often struggled to return to paid employment after leaving the workforce to attend to increased commitments at home. But since the pandemic uprooted traditional working practices, a growing number of professionals are re-evaluating their work lives and choosing to step away from their jobs. Studies show that millennials are primed to take career breaks at higher rates than previous generations to focus on childcare, eldercare, relocation, health and other personal commitments.[²]


At the same time, companies are more committed than ever to diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI. Demand for DEI managers grew 23% globally in 2019,[³] evidence that employers are motivated to take action on DEI priorities. Organizations that lead in diversity take bold steps in their business practices to strengthen their inclusion and build a people-centered culture. Companies may need to adopt new methods to attract and engage diverse talent in a post-pandemic world. 


Returnships recognize that these professionals have much to offer — not only their previous industry experience, but also the skills they’ve developed during their time outside of the workforce.


Returnships typically include a cohort model, reskilling and upskilling, mentorship and the opportunity for full-time employment following successful completion of the program. Designed to reduce the risk of hiring candidates with multiyear career gaps, companies with returnships have found that returners are worth the investment, with over 80% receiving full-time offers at the end of the program.[⁴]


Here are four ways returnships support companies in meeting their talent needs in a post-pandemic world. 


1. Uncover a hidden pool of highly qualified talent

Despite years of evidence from highly successful returnships at Fortune 500 companies, the myth persists that career gaps indicate a weakened drive and skills. Applicants with career breaks are often overlooked in the traditional recruitment process, further blunting returners’ confidence after years out of the workforce. 


In reality, returners offer both their industry knowledge and a range of insights and skills gained from their career break. Organization, adaptability, prioritization, maturity and self-awareness are some areas that may be strengthened during career gaps. A renewed commitment to paid employment also spurs many returners to pursue formal and self-driven learning opportunities during their hiatus from work. Employers find that returners are highly motivated to refresh their skills and can quickly identify areas where they can add value to the organization.

1.8 million
women left the workforce during the pandemic, most looking to return.

Companies that aim to attract diverse professionals will find among this hidden talent pool a large number of highly qualified, mid-career women. The nearly 1.8 million women who left the workforce during the pandemic, added to the existing pool of women who took a career break for childcare or other personal reasons. Most will be looking to return to the workforce, many with highly specialized backgrounds in finance, technology, strategy and other sought-after fields. Through returnships, organizations can onboard high-caliber talent from a range of diverse backgrounds and experiences, and they’re ready to make an impact.

2. Build and enhance a culture of curiosity 

A central feature of return-to-work programs is structured learning to reskill and upskill returning professionals in their area of focus. Recognizing that returners bring a wealth of prior knowledge, returnships seek to build on this foundation and fill in any gaps, particularly in fields that utilize rapidly evolving technology and innovation. Program cohorts engage in a culture of continuous development and apply these insights to relevant projects, allowing for rapid feedback and growth. 

Companies that already offer structured reskilling and upskilling experiences to current employees may find that returnships extend their existing culture of curiosity. Employees are regularly required to learn new skills on the job, and upskilling programs support current workers in increasing their impact and prepare them for new responsibilities and promotions. For companies without existing learning programs, returnships offer a starting place to pilot formal skill-building experiences that benefit all workers. 

Managers, mentors and program leads will further grow from their engagement with returners, enhancing their ability to identify and cultivate mid-career talent, provide on-the-job feedback, and structure impactful projects and skill-building experiences. Breaking from traditional talent acquisition methods, returnships prompt employers to rethink their talent practices and consider other applications for the returnship model.

3. Promote a people-oriented culture

Returnships don’t simply allow some candidates with career gaps — they require that applicants have an extended break from work. This sends a clear message to all employees — past, present and future — that you value and celebrate workers’ personal and professional experiences. 

Returners seek out companies that demonstrate these values through flexible and inclusive business practices that support a healthy integration of work and home. Recent surveys indicate a growing demand from all workers for benefits such as flexible schedules, remote work options and generous paid family leave.[⁵] Organizations that support their employees in managing personal commitments while achieving professional goals will find they are well equipped to attract and retain returners and current workers alike. 

With years of professional experience and a career break behind them, returners are looking to bring their true selves to work. Returners add significant value to existing employee resource groups and leadership teams, bringing diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. The cohort model promotes teamwork and collaboration and supports returners to foster positive professional relationships. Returners bring these positive experiences into their full-time roles, along with their enthusiasm to enrich a people-centered workplace culture.

4. Invest in your company’s future

Companies can expect to feel pandemic-driven impacts in the labor market for years to come. While crises bring uncertainty, organizations can predict that as more professionals consider career breaks, there will be huge swaths of experienced professionals looking to return to the workforce. Companies that invest in return-to-work programs now can be prepared to recruit a growing and increasingly sought-after candidate pool and sustain their long-term talent pipeline.

Returnships tell employees that their personal commitments are valued and that a hiatus from work need not be an off-ramp.

In addition to attracting high-caliber external talent, returnships signal to current employees that nonlinear career paths are recognized and valued by the organization. As companies strive to promote employee well-being and mitigate mid-career burnout, returnships tell employees that their personal commitments are valued and that a hiatus from work need not be an off-ramp. Returnships can also offer a homecoming for previous employees, whose institutional and cultural knowledge propel them to serve as program ambassadors.

Employers may want to also cultivate a sustainable workforce development approach that meets changing industry needs and evolving employee expectations. Returnships model key talent-development practices — effective learning experiences, strategic mentorships, transparent expectations, a commitment to diversity and inclusion — that can inspire and inform the broader talent strategy and prepare employees for the skills of the future. Organizations that address employees’ needs for personal and professional fulfillment today will find themselves equipped with tomorrow’s leaders, and can be ready to take on the next challenge.

EY Reconnect returnship program

Our 12-week return-to-work program can help career returners to re-enter the workplace after an extended break.

Discover the EY Reconnect returnship program


Exceptional talent strategies are at the heart of any high-performing company. A nonlinear career path is the new normal, and companies would be wise to invest in return-to-work programs to capitalize on this growing pool of diverse, experienced talent.

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