How Returnships Can Reduce Ageism

This article originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on February 28, 2024. You can view the column here.

Ali Bilden Camps northforce
Ali Bilden Camps, NORTHFORCE Program Manager

You’ve heard of internships, but what about returnships? This play on words, combining “return” and “internship,” refers to a career-restart employment program designed to help individuals smoothly transition back into the workplace after taking a break from working.

There are many reasons why people choose to put their careers on hold or find they need to take an extended absence from work. Military service and caregiving responsibilities are just two common examples.

A returnship can provide opportunities for training or regaining skills — as an example, for a retiree who has a wealth of valuable experience to contribute but who might need a tutorial on your virtual team management systems. A returnship might also feature flexible scheduling in order to accommodate work-life balance realities, such as parents who need to pick up their kids from school at 3 p.m.

However it’s structured, a returnship can lead to a full-time position, providing a solid return on investment for both the returnee and the host company. What’s more, returnships can help organizations avoid ageism, a form of discrimination that can sometimes go unnoticed in the workplace. Maybe you know someone who was forced out of the job they love due to their age, despite the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967.

Ageism might not be intentional, let alone overt. For instance, failing to offer benefits such as health savings accounts, Medicare supplements, or paid time off can be a deterrent for many returnees, as can delaying benefit start dates.

In a tight labor market, employers have an incentive to do everything they can to widen their pool of applicants. One great way could be to start a returnship program. Here are three tips to get you started:

First, evaluate whether a returnship is right for your business. Keep in mind that a returnship might be appropriate for some roles but not others. For instance, does the position allow returnees to balance work with other responsibilities?

Second, use best practices while crafting job descriptions and throughout the application and hiring process to ensure you’re complying with ADEA, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and other relevant laws.

Third, build in some form of evaluation to make ongoing improvements to the program. This could be as simple as a short survey to gather feedback from the returnee and others involved, such as supervisors or mentors.

It sounds like a lot to consider — and it can be! But returnships can also pay off when done right. Some companies might be able to partner with organizations that support individuals who have taken career breaks, such as The Mom Project, Path Forward, and iRelaunch. You can also check out this free Returnships Toolkit for more information as well as regional resources for building the ultimate returnship program and following fair hiring practices.

Ali Bilden Camps of Duluth is a Northspan consultant and the NORTHFORCE program manager. Northspan is a nonprofit consulting firm in Duluth that powers the region’s NORTHFORCE program.

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