When schools, childcare programs, and eldercare services shut down during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, some parents and caregivers were forced to quit their jobs in order to focus on taking care of their families. Women with children were hit the hardest, with 1.6 million leaving the labor force between February 2020 and June 2021. That talent drain, among other complex economic factors, left many companies with shortages of workers in sectors like technology, leisure, hospitality, education, and health services. Compounding this shortage is a 2021 hiring surge caused by a rebounding economy and record-high job openings.
One way that Audible, the Amazon-owned audiobook and podcast company, plans to fill some of those open roles is through returnships: paid, short-term midlevel career internships. Not only do returnships offer a stream of skilled new talent for companies, they also provide a fresh start for workers.
It can be extremely difficult for even the most experienced workers to break back into the workforce after a hiatus, says Tami Forman, Executive Director of Path Forward, a nonprofit returnship consultancy that has worked with Verizon, Intuit, Walmart, and Amazon. “The longer the gap in the resume, the harder it is to return. At the two-year mark is where it gets dramatically harder,” Forman tells Staffing.com. “The main reason is bias. Managers default to hiring someone who is currently working in the role they are hiring for.”
With the help of Path Forward, Audible initiated a 16-week pilot returnship program in October 2020 focusing on technology and UX, inspired in part by the pandemic. “A return to the workforce is always hard, and under a pandemic with unprecedented joblessness, it became almost impossible for many people to re-enter the workforce,” Tim Martin, Audible’s Chief Technology Officer, tells Staffing.com.
Another major factor in Audible’s decision to employ returnships was diversity and inclusion. “There are many systemic challenges to gender and ethnic diversity in the workforce and especially in technology,” says Martin. Returners bring different perspectives and valuable experience with them, and Audible wanted to tap into that unexplored talent pool. “Diversity in life experiences, priorities, and skill sets helps us deliver better for our customers because the dialogue is open to more than one point of view.”
How Audible Structured Its Returnship Program
Returners’ needs are different from candidates who are currently employed, so Audible worked with Path Forward to make sure the company set participants up for success from the start. Two main features of this thoughtful structure were a specialized interview process and extended onboarding.
Creating an Interview Process Tailored to Returners
Typical interviews are geared toward candidates who are currently working, says Forman, “so right off the bat, some of the questions are hard for many returners to know how to approach. The interviewer’s attitude is, ‘Prove to me you can do this job.’” Martin agrees. “Many of the people that we are seeing in our program had strong skill sets and had taken action to ensure that their skills were up to date. [But] when someone has had a career break, it can be difficult for them to demonstrate those skills in a typical interview setting.”
In Audible’s modified interview process, talent recruiters widened the lens to consider a more diverse candidate pool, then partnered with hiring managers to provide preparatory and learning materials for candidates, including:
- Platforms in which engineering candidates could practice coding, such as HackerRank, LeetCode, and GeekInterview.
- An animated video that thoroughly explained Audible’s virtual interview platform.
- Suggested reading materials, such as the books Cracking the Coding Interview and Elements of Programming Interviews, plus links to helpful blogs.
- Training on the STAR method of interviewing, so candidates could better prepare for interview questions.
In many cases, returners were given three to four weeks to prepare for an interview. “The returnship seemed tailor-made for me,” says Karishma Gokhale, who applied for the Audible returnship after taking a two-year child-rearing hiatus from the workforce. “The interview process was seamless and thoughtfully designed, keeping in mind that the applicants have been on a break.”
Building an Enriching Onboarding Experience
Once hired, Audible returners followed an extended onboarding that—in addition to the more technical aspects of job training—included an eight-week learning module offering resources to help participants network, articulate their personal brand, and enhance their self-advocacy skills. “We had sessions to introduce the returnship cohort to leadership, panels on issues like imposter syndrome, and resources to set us up for success,” says Gokhale, who was offered a full-time job after completing her returnship and is now a full-fledged software development engineer at the company. “We were assigned a manager and a mentor. I also attended the team’s daily standups, which helped me understand the bigger picture of the work my team was doing.”
Some specific aspects of Audible’s returner learning program included:
- Panel discussions with leaders.
- Weekly classroom sessions on themes such as maximizing the mentoring relationship, tapping into internal and external networks, and building confidence.
- Meetings with employee resource groups, including [email protected] and [email protected]
How Audible Measured Success
The ultimate goal of a returnship program is twofold: to offer returners a successful re-entry into their respective industries, and to provide businesses with a seamless new stream of top talent. But do these programs work? The results speak for themselves: After the Audible returnship pilot ended, the company extended full-time offers to 80% of its pilot cohort, and 100% of those job offers were accepted. The company is now scaling the program to include more people and expanding it beyond tech roles to include marketing, finance, and data insights roles.
Other businesses that Path Forward works with have had similar experiences, says Forman. She recalls one particular company where hiring managers were especially skeptical about the returner talent pool at first—but after the pilot, during which full-time job offers were extended to eight out of 10 returners, four times as many managers asked to host a returner the next time around. “These programs change minds about who can be successful at a company,” she says.
By creating an on-ramp for candidates who’ve taken time off for caregiving responsibilities—whether related to the pandemic or not—forward-thinking businesses that offer returnships are nurturing a pool of loyal and engaged future employees, and making space for more talented people to achieve their dreams.