Returning to work

Programmes that help women professionals restart after extended breaks are gathering momentum


Juhi Mitra at her Godrej office in Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Juhi Mitra at her Godrej office in Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

In October 2015, Juhi Mitra faced the kind of situation that a lot of professionals do after an extended break: restarting her career. The then 28-year-old human resource (HR) professional was struggling to land a suitable job after taking a six-month break to take care of her ailing mother. Mitra says the gap in her résumé led to a couple of rejections or offers with a diminished profile or pay cut. Then she came across the Godrej Group’s Careers 2.0 programme on a professional networking site and applied for a project in HR. Careers 2.0 is a 28-week programme that offers experienced women, who have been on an extended break, a chance to return to the workplace by working on projects in various functional areas at the 120-year-old conglomerate that has business interests ranging from processed food to property. At the end of the programme, Mitra was hired at Godrej Agrovet Ltd in a full-time position (learning and development) as assistant manager. 

She is not alone. Many women have been down the same road. 

“I took a break of six years to start my family after a career of almost 10 years. Although I continued doing small projects at a relaxed pace right through the break, nobody wanted to touch me with a bargepole when I wanted to return to work,” says Nirmala Menon, founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Interweave Consulting, a Bengaluru-based diversity and inclusion consulting company. This prompted her to set up her own consulting company so that she could help open doors for more women. 

Returnships, by and large, are like internships for mid-career professionals. They are not recruitment drives, but free-of-cost supported programmes that help participants transition back to work. Like internships, in returnships too there’s no guarantee of full-time employment.

In most cases, companies offer ongoing business projects to women who meet the eligibility criteria of the programme. Each project has a designated project head/sponsor, a mentor, and a buddy attached to the participant. Apart from the hands-on experience, participants go through orientation, some amount of soft skills training and upskilling in the case of technology companies where tech obsolescence is common. The participants receive a stipend (in most cases) that typically lasts anywhere from one to six months. Usually, 50-70% of the participants get hired in full-time positions; in some cases, all are absorbed. The number of returnships (usually between one and 20 per programme) are extremely few if one considers the pool of experienced women.

Although returnship programmes, a relatively new practice in India, are designed primarily for women, some firms such as global investment bank Goldman Sachs and domain registrar GoDaddy consider men too. Chandrasekhar Sripada, president and global head of HR at Dr Reddy’s Laboratories Ltd, explains the rationale behind keeping these programmes limited to women: “Women need such special pathways more than men as women at large face obstacles and breaks in career progression owing to motherhood and childcare responsibilities. It is women who have to pay an implicit penalty for dropping out of the workforce.”

Back to work

Whether it leads to a full-time career, or serves to sharpen the skills necessary to take the next step, a returnship programme is valuable experience for women who are ready to re-enter the workforce, says Vidya Lakshmi, managing director and head of human capital management at Goldman Sachs Services in Bengaluru.

Goldman Sachs piloted a returnship programme in 2008. Its success led the firm to trademark the term “returnship”. The programme was launched in India in 2013. As of 2016, there have been about 150 returnships in the US and 85 in India. About 50% of those candidates have been offered full-term roles at the firm, says Lakshmi. What was spearheaded by banking and financial institutions nine years ago was first picked up by technology companies, struggling with the low employment participation rates of women. Soon, the consumer goods, retail, pharmaceutical, engineering and construction sectors joined in. “There’s a big opportunity for organizations to tap this experienced yet underutilized talent pool,” says Menon.

“A back-to-work programme is an important recruitment tool. It allows companies to skim off the best talent,” says Sumit Mitra, head (group HR and corporate services), Godrej Industries Ltd and Associate Companies.

Getting reoriented

The demand for returning workers has also spawned a niche segment of recruiters and consultants, such as AVTAR Career Creators, FLEXI Careers India, SHEROES, Maniams and People Konnect, that help professionals find suitable work opportunities—often short-term or project-based work across several functions, including HR, finance and sales.

Many women need to build their self-confidence and close skill gaps before they can successfully transition to full-time work and these returnship programmes work well for them, says Sairee Chahal, founder-CEO, SHEROES, a job portal that curates work-from-home jobs in India and supports a community of working women.

Experts caution that for a returnship programme to be truly successful, it has to look beyond the short term. Organizations need to have a strategic and holistic approach when developing such programmes. For instance, the 11-week internship programme at Goldman Sachs includes an orientation course to refresh both technical and soft skills, ongoing guidance from senior leadership, networking opportunities to explore the various openings available, and performance reviews.  “Our firm guides divisional managers and stakeholders to craft a ‘hands-on’ internship experience via the nature and quality of work, which offers the intern a real view into future responsibilities,” adds Lakshmi.

Sripada adds that such programmes need to be pursued vigorously and all stakeholders, especially the business managers, need to be completely invested for them to be successful. “We garnered two key learnings since we launched Comeback Careers in 2014. First, the communication outreach needs to be very strong so that more women across the globe get to know of our programme (in our first year, we barely got a handful of applicants in the first year of our programme). Second, the HR and communications team are just facilitators in this process. It is the business head whose sponsorship is the key to the success of these women restarting their careers,” says Sripada.

One of the reasons for employers to have such returnship programmes is to make a strong business case even in terms of employment branding. For such programmes are seen as progressive steps and help boost the company’s image as an employer of choice.

Top strategies

What to do if you are looking to get back to the grind

■ Plan your break. Be proactive and not reactive about managing extended breaks. 

■ Make a realistic assessment of where you are and where you want to go from there. 

■ Use the time to reflect. You may discover new passions that didn’t get attention earlier.

■ Learn, unlearn and relearn, especially if you are in the science, technology or engineering fields.

■ Find a mentor or someone who has successfully transitioned back into full-time work to guide you.

■ Don’t undersell yourself at the job interview.

■ Network. Do not hesitate to reach out to former employers who might be able to help.

—By Nirmala Menon, founder-CEO of Interweave Consulting, and Sairee Chahal, founder-CEO of SHEROES

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