When I decided not to return to work after having my first child, a trusted colleague advised me to still “do something” while I was home. She suggested I work part-time, attend conferences, or volunteer – really, anything that would fill the unsightly gap in employment on my resume.

While she supported and respected my choice to be home, she warned that many of her friends who made the same decision struggled to re-enter the workforce. They had to take steps back in their careers and salary because employers found their break from the paid workforce unattractive. She wanted me to avoid this, advising that my skills and time are valuable, and I should be paid accordingly, even if I’ve chosen to exit the fast track for a while.

With this in mind, I took a big gulp and pressed pause on my career, and I don’t yet know how my personal story will go. I hope, when I’m ready, I’m able to press play right where I left off, but I know I may have to rewind to a more junior role to get my foot back in the door. I also know that my situation is not unique.

Paying the price for exiting the fast track

According to the Harvard Business Review’s widely circulated 2005 study “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps:  Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success,” over a third of “highly qualified women” reported voluntarily leaving their careers at some point, and the number increases to 43% among women with children. Almost all of the women surveyed (93%) intended to re-enter the workforce, but only 40% found full-time employment. Others worked part-time or became self-employed.

The authors concluded, “The implication is clear: Off-ramps are around every curve in the road, but once a woman has taken one, on-ramps are few and far between – and extremely costly.” Even with a relatively short break of one to two years, women lost, on average, 18% of their earning power. Unsurprisingly, the longer women stayed out, the larger the penalty. The authors updated the study in 2010 and did not find significant differences in their results.

So, my colleague’s advice to me was sound. As I enter my third year out of the workforce, I can’t help but take another big gulp, wondering just how much money I’m leaving on the table and just how hard it will be to get back to work when I’m ready.

Of course, having a choice of whether to work is a privilege that few American women have. Nonetheless, there’s a group of us who put our professional careers on hold, only to find that the years we invested in schooling and work don’t help very much when we want to get back in the game, and that’s pretty frustrating.

But, employers are feeling pain, too, in the form of talent shortages and the desire to balance gender representation in their workplaces, so they’re taking notice of the “roughly 2.6 million educated mothers of prime working age who are not in the labor force.”

On-ramping with a returnship

The Chicago Tribune reported in February 2016 that seven STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) companies are set to launch re-entrance programs this year for professionals who want to get back into the workforce after taking an extended career break (usually two or more years). These paid internships serve as an outreach opportunity to a pool of talent that, until recently, may have been overlooked because of their break from work.

IBM, GM, Booz Allen Hamilton, Intel, Johnson Controls, Cummins, and Caterpillar committed to pilot programs in cooperation with the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and the consulting firm iRelaunch, which calls itself “the return-to-work experts.” The hope is that more companies in STEM will sign on to start programs of their own in the coming years.

The concept is not new. Goldman Sachs led the pack in 2008 with its Returnship program , and Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, and JPMorgan followed with similar programs. Several big law firms started their own, too, and some companies have expanded their programs globally. According to iRelaunch’s comprehensive list of re-entry programs, there are about 90 active programs across industries.

The details of the programs vary by company, but they generally offer paid internships that last anywhere from nine weeks to an entire year and rotate participants through various departments or roles. Participants receive support through mentorships and workshops, have opportunities to network with other professionals, and adapt their skills for a work environment that may have changed since they’ve been gone.

The programs are competitive and do not guarantee a job offer at the end. At Goldman, 1,000 applicants vied for 19 spots in 2013, and about half of all graduates of the program have received job offers.

The highest users of these internships are women who stepped out of the workforce to raise families, but it’s not exclusively for them. As adults have the burden to care for their aging parents or take leaves of absence for other personal reasons, these programs offer a way to re-adjust to life at work, as The New York Times highlighted in 2014.

Are they really necessary?

Since my background is in human resources, when I first learned about these programs I was intrigued, but as a stay-at-home mom who assumes she’ll have a career again one day, I was miffed. Had I really become so untouchable that I’d need a special program to get back to work? These internships validate the assumption that candidates with a gap in employment are less capable than candidates who’ve continuously worked, and I’m not convinced that’s fair.

In that Harvard Business Review study, women lost earning power after one or two years out of work. How much does one’s professional skill set really diminish over two years, and does it actually justify putting them in a more junior role than the one they left? Does it really take longer to bring them up to speed than any new employee on-boarding into a company?

I was chatting with a friend from my old job, and she filled me in on the latest news from our company. It was kind of like watching a soap opera that I hadn’t seen in a few years. Things had changed, but I could still follow the storyline pretty easily. Surely, I could jump back into my old role after three years of being away. So, then, how big of a disadvantage would I really have at a different company compared to any other new hire?

I channeled my grad school research days and scanned through hundreds of studies on JSTOR looking for data on this — the success and turnover rates of people re-entering the workforce after a career interruption compared to new employees with no such break. I couldn’t find any research on the topic. If you have facts on this, please share them because I really want to know whether the perception is justified that job candidates with a break in service are a high risk hiring decision.

I want more than anecdotes of a mom getting cold feet as she starts a new job. Because for every one of those, I know a woman who hit the ground running at the same speed as any other new employee. Sure, these ladies found the transition mentally taxing at first, but this didn’t diminish their contributions to their new employers. Everyone starting a new job has a learning curve and no one has an absolutely perfect skill set. We all have strengths and weaknesses, regardless of whether we’ve always worked or took a break.

If such research doesn’t exist, then I know what I’ll study for my PhD dissertation when I can’t get a job due to my apparently unbridgeable gap in employment. Because, I actually think I’ll be a better employee than when I left. Motherhood has made me an all-around more competent person. I’m a better advocate for others and a better leader, more mindful of when and how to steer the ship where it needs to go.

In fact, another friend of mine, who’s an attorney, said that early in her career, the lawyer interviewing her noticed she had been a preschool teacher in college. The lawyer told her that if she could successfully negotiate with two- and three-year-olds, then she would have no trouble arguing with opposing counsel. She got the job.

On top of the professional skill set that I’ve retained (and still use, just in different ways), I’m bringing an entire set of experiences that people who’ve always worked don’t have. I may have unique and beneficial insights to share with my new company, and it’s disheartening that it’s not always looked at this way.

I’m not alone in taking offense. Stacey Hawley’s article on WorkingMother.com called returnships a “bad idea” that “take advantage of women who feel less confident after being at home for a few years.” She argues that companies “PLAY on this PERCEIVED lack of expertise or skills. They promote the low self-confidence some people feel after being out of the workforce and use it to their advantage. Under the guise of helping people get up to speed and allowing employees to ‘see if it is the right fit,’ they get a no-risk trial and can fire you.”

Certainly things change over time. New technology, industry innovations, and workplace trends create a learning curve that steepens the longer one’s been gone, but lumping everyone with a gap of two or more years into one group, assuming they need extra help just to function in a workplace, and then funneling them into highly competitive programs that don’t guarantee employment lets companies off the hook of evaluating resumes of career re-launchers in an unbiased way.

Illustration of a isometric office desk

But maybe they’re helpful

As I worked myself up into a lather over these re-entry programs, I reached out to my former colleagues still in the trenches of human resources at a variety of well-known and respected companies. They calmed my righteous indignation because they’re not only skilled professionals but also young mothers who know what it feels like to actually make that transition back to work (something I have yet to do). 

They know firsthand how hard it is to transition their mindsets back to work after time off, even if it’s only a four-month maternity leave. “It’s still a very big mental shift to get your brain re-trained to be focused on the business, strategies, etc. To go from family being the number one, to family being one of a few different priorities, it’s a juggle,” Kelly Jones, an HR Business Partner at The Clorox Company explains. Re-entrance programs offer less of a commitment on both sides, which is good if the candidate decides she’s not quite ready to go back to work.

I also talked with Estrella Parker, Chief Human Resource Officer at Satellite Healthcare WellBound, for her take on these initiatives. Her company does not have a re-entrance program, but she sees value in them as an opportunity to rebuild the confidence of people coming back to work, not to take advantage of them.

She explains, “It’s all about transition. How do you support them to prepare for a competitive environment, so they can reintegrate into those [higher] level positions [that they left]?” Even more importantly, she says, these programs offer access to professional networks that may be hard for individuals to tap into on their own. The old adage of, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know” often still holds true for career progression.

Getting your foot back in the door

Whether you think a re-entrance program is right for you, or you want to find other ways to get back to work, think first about what you really want to do. “When you take a break, it changes you, and you might not want to get back into work where you left off,” Parker notes. You’ll be most successful if you find the right fit, even if it’s in a different company, industry, or profession than where you were before. IRelaunch offers numerous resources to get you prepped for returning to work.

Here are some other things to keep in mind:

Introducing the concept of re-entrance programs to desired employers may be tough.

Developing and running programs like these takes time and money, and employers aren’t likely to do it for a single job candidate. Your best bet is to convince them that you already have what it takes to be hired straight away. If you’re set on getting one of these schemes in place, work with current employees inside the company to develop a business case for it. You’ll need to understand where they have talent gaps, demonstrate how these programs can help close those gaps, offer suggestions for program design, and estimate the return on investment the company can expect.

That’s a lot of work, so maybe… 

Consider contracting assignments to ease back in.

Often, companies need extra help from experienced, highly-skilled professionals for specific projects or seasonal work and will contract with temporary agencies and consultants to fill this need. It’s a common re-entry point that provides flexibility and less commitment, but gets a foot in the door and can lead to full-time employment.

Networking is the key.

It really is all about getting that chance to prove you’ve still got it, and often that’s about who you know. Make it vocal to anyone who will listen that you’re ready to return to work. You may be surprised at your own connections.

Bottom line

I’m not convinced that everyone who takes a break from work requires a special set of hoops, like these internships, to prove that we’ve retained our business acumen, technical, and communication skills. I’m afraid that, with the creation of these programs, companies are never challenged to examine their bias against career re-launchers as already-legitimate job candidates. However, since I haven’t transitioned back to work, I don’t fully understand what it takes, and I have to trust my colleagues who have done it.

I do believe these programs were designed to be mutually beneficial to companies and career re-launchers alike, so I support them. Because, really, whenever a company invests time and money into people, it’s a good thing.