The New Age of Internships

by Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO of iRelaunch

Returning to the working world after a career break can feel like the first day of college: There’s a huge system to navigate, new rules to follow, and lots of people to impress. How can competent professionals facing this situation get past the break and show prospective employers the continued value of their talent?

By going where the college kids go: an internship.

Internships these days are not just for college kids on summer break; they’ve become an effective vehicle for professionals returning from a career break to engage with employers. Reentry internships can be used by the whole range of non–traditional professionals: not only those relaunching after breaks for childcare or elder care, but also returning retirees, vets, military spouses, and expats.

Reentry internships have benefits for employers, too. To the extent some managers view hiring returning professionals as a high-risk proposition, the internship (or internship-like arrangement) can lower the perceived risk. It allows the manager to base the eventual hiring decision on an actual work sample instead of a series of interviews, and to delay the permanent hiring decision until the internship period is over. As one manager said, “I wish I could hire all my employees this way!”

Additionally, consider what an employer signals to its youngest employees by having a formal reentry program. The employer demonstrates it openly recognizes and accepts that some of its employees’ career paths will include a break, easing anxiety for talented young professionals who are also prospective young parents or elder-care givers. It says to these young employees, “If you do have a career break in your future, when you return, we want to be your employer of choice; we have a formal path back for you. You are not alone in the transition.”

I gave a TEDxBeaconStreet talk on my work in November

In Back on the Career Track, the 2007 career reentry strategy book I co-authored, we talk about the future of relaunching. We argued that hiring professionals back after a period of years away would allow employers to recoup their initial investment in those workers. We also noted that employers would discover the talent to be tapped in the relauncher pool beyond their own alumni, and that formal programs designed to engage with this talent would start to proliferate. Nine years later, this is indeed happening.

Employers with reentry internship programs signal that they are invested in their employees’ long term success, and they validate the high-caliber of the pool of experienced professionals on career break.

Every employer with an internship program for undergraduates or graduate school students should have a reentry internship program as well. The concept is the same, many of the training modules and professional development components are the same; even the job classifications can be the same. Don’t reinvent the wheel.

Consider the powerful signaling that a reentry internship program sends to employees and beyond, and make that one more reason to pilot one.

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