Last June 23rd, Centre of Applied Research & Consulting (CEA) and Responsible Business Centre from Universidade Católica Portuguesa joined forces in promoting a Knowledge Webinar to discuss Returnship Programs (also called Return-to-Work Programs).

Ana Simões Head of Business Practice of and Mariana Branquinho da Fonseca Senior Client Partner & Co-Managing Partner of Korn Ferry Portugal joined us to discuss what are these programs, why they exist and how they could help Portuguese career break women to return to the workforce.

From the beginning: why do we need any program for women career breakers?

In the past two years, articles on women leaving their jobs to take care of family members became quite common. The issue of balancing personal and professional lives exists for a long time and the covid pandemic just exacerbates it. Usually, pausing their professional career has been the most common solution used by women.

As mentioned, career breaks are not new, but returning to the job market has been a tough and sometimes almost impossible task for many women around the world. In Portugal, this situation is no different. INE (Statistics Portugal) October 2021 data shows that from 52K people unemployed with at least a bachelor degree, 65% were women.

What are Returnship Programs?

These programs were created in the USA. The literature describes Goldman Sachs and Sara Lee Returnship programs as the first ones launched in 2008. Afterward, they were copied by many other companies in the USA and came to Europe in 2015. The focus of those programs was on women, but sometimes also men took advantage of them. Usually, career breaks required for joining these programs are at least  1,5-2 years (longer breaks are allowed).

Returnship programs provide a work experience of 3-6 months, with some training in-between. It allows companies to know the professional on the job (less risk) when compared with only interview sets (where returnees lag behind other candidates). In general, the programs have cohorts of 5-25 people with different backgrounds.

Benefits expected from Returnship Programs and Returnees:

Ana Simões mentioned that some of the main factors for decision to launch their program was to expand the hiring pipeline of prospective candidates with high qualification/ experience, mainly during a period with a reduced offer of qualified available talent. Additionally, it will help provide a screening tool for ultimate hiring top talent on the basis of meaningful work sample vs. a couple of interviews. Finally, the program help company´s diversity as well as Corporate Responsibility practices.

Mariana Branquinho da Fonseca mentioned that even though there are not many known cases of women Returnees of older age in Portugal, the ones that she knows brought a lot of energy, experience, maturity and dedication to their new companies. This corroborates with international data which states that on one hand returnees or career-breakers bring diversity of age, gender & experience to the workplace, as well as energy and enthusiasm to return to work life. Since they have a more settled life, they also are very dedicated and loyal to the company. On the other hand, returnees tend to have technological upskill needs and demand a bit more time (in our experience circa 1-2 months) to regain self-confidence and agility in the fast-paced working environment.

In Portugal, what is currently available

Two years ago, CEA (from UCP) launched the program Back-to-Market to support career break women with management, finance and economics backgrounds to restart their careers. The free program for women consists of 3,5 months of a real-life consulting project, weekly classes with UCP lecturers, and different workshops to prepare the women for the job search. The 4 editions of the program, resulted in 59% restarting work within a year in Corporate & Third sectors or creating their own business. Furthermore, it helped restore women´s previous competencies and develop extra skills, increase their self-confidence, prepare women for the job search and interview process and refresh their network connections.

On the corporate front, launched its Returnship Program early this year and is still accepting applications for different positions mainly in the STEM area.

Is not a lot, but is a start. So if you are part of a company or a woman that would like to restart, what can you do? What can companies and individuals do?

If you are part of a company and want to participate, you can:
  • Sponsor a new edition of the Back-to-Market program for 5 women (a new edition starts in September and afterward as soon as other sponsors joins) which will provide your company with a consulting project done by the participants in the Back-to-Market program;
  • Create your own Returnship Program (or tailor Back-to-Market Program to your own company needs)
If you are a career breaker looking to come back to the workforce, you can:

But in case you are not any of the above, please spread the word that these programs exist, you never know when someone or some company can be helped

Have a great and impactful week!

Karen Ferrez Frisch
CEA Back-to-Market Co-founder

Rute Xavier
CEA Back-to-Market Co-founder
Centro de Estudos Aplicados Executive Director

This article refers to edition #146 of the "Have a Great and Impactful Week" Newsletter and covers SDG 5, 8, and 10.
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