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Why We Need to Embrace the 'Returnship'

by Kellie Whitehead

I recently worked out that I have spent at least 10,000 hours working with, coaching and insight gathering from women running their own businesses or looking to start. From the latter group, I can confidently say that the impetus to strike out on their own often comes from a place of trying to make sense of their own place in the workforce or their careers - when the UAE entrepreneurial life is imminently more attractive than a job hunt after years of staying at home raising families, trailing their spouse around the world or a yearning to change direction completely.

And these women feel stuck. Stuck with gaping holes on their CV and stuck in a cycle of confusion, lack of confidence and a volatile job market, which seemingly doesn’t cater for these highly capable ladies, with more transferable skills than they realise, who are looking for a ‘way back in’ after extended leave from their careers or workplaces.

Where to start in beating the vicious cycle of rejection due to direct lack of industry experience and companies unwilling to risk a hire based solely on enthusiasm?

This is where the ‘Returnship’ comes in.

Sounding very like ‘Internship’ - this is because the Returnship is essentially that.

Blinkers off, no legacy thinking on new starters, a Returnship programme would give women the opportunity to pivot industries or get back into the workplace, building both confidence and that all important experience.

A Returnship is also a less risky, more gentle reintroduction into the modern workplace for those who have taken time out. For those lucky enough to find a permanent role off the bat - the reality after time away can be a real shock to the system. Feeling like you’ve made a mistake, but hanging in there regardless does neither the company, nor your own confidence any favours.

When you’ve been ‘out of office’ for a few years, it’s only natural to feel a little fragile on your feet. You know what you want next, and it may have taken you a while to figure this out or even get the courage to put yourself back on the job market. You know you need to sharpen some skills or maybe pivot entirely.

In a world powered by tech, it’s natural to feel a little rusty. Returnship programmes help adults who have taken some time out for whatever reason and are looking to re-integrate into the modern workplace. Just like an internship, the returnship can last a few weeks to a few months and should offer commensurate pay or benefits.

Returnships should focus on identifying strengths and building skill sets. The returnee will build their personal network and get a clearer idea on their future path, complete with permission to change. You could find yourself with a new mentor, or even be hired permanently.

The years of experience older women can bring to an organisation are priceless. There is no doubt we are seeing an improvement in the workplace gender-gap, but I’d still like to see more empathy to women looking to return to the workplace in reality. In the UAE, for example, it’s hard to find organisations and businesses who offer returnship programmes outside of large multinationals. But they are missing a real trick - a perfect win/win situation both for the women involved and the company to show truly innovative leadership and HR practice. We are in a workplace revolution and we cannot afford to be left behind - I’m on a mission to bring the returnship into workplace parlance, and of course, the more we talk about it, the more change we can effect.

Economically it is well documented as to the effects of the current pandemic on women specifically. From the ‘typically female’ industries being affected the most, leading to job losses and even homeschooling, which has fallen on female shoulders domestically, statistics show. Covid-19 has set us back, there is no debate, but it’s time to take back control and re-educate - not just ourselves but any employers still living in 2019.

Back to work programmes are an underutilised gem in the GCC outside of MNC’s - I implore women looking to get back to work to ask for them. Work out an organisational wish list for yourself and reach out - the worst they can say is no. I fully expect this to become more mainstream in the nearer future, but in the meantime, let’s all embrace the idea of the returnship.


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