After her two sons were born in the early 1990s, Lisa Stephens decided to take a step back from her job at IBM to raise her family.
Once her kids were in high school and college, she tried to get back into the workforce but soon learned that the 20-year gap on her resume was a red flag to potential employers.
To boost her resume, Stephens took graduate-level courses in information technology and began learning modern coding skills from her older son, but she still couldn't land an interview.
"I had always just assumed I would be able to get back into tech because I was hard worker and a high performer," said Stephens, who lives in Superior. "Then it became clear to me that it wasn't going to be so easy. I just really couldn't get anybody to give me a chance."
A little more than three years ago, Stephens saw a Facebook post about a new mid-career internship for stay-at-home moms and dads looking to get back into the workforce. It sounded like a perfect fit, so she applied right away.
She landed the so-called "returnship" at Broomfield's Return Path, an email marketing company, and within three months, the company had offered her a permanent software engineering position, which she accepted.
These paid, mid-career internships were so successful that Return Path spun off its returnship program into a nonprofit called Path Forward in January 2016.What started as a relatively small, in-house program at Return Path has since expanded to 28 companies in New York, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, Seattle and Denver.
All told, more than 140 people across the country — primarily women — have now participated in returnships facilitated by Path Forward. The nonprofit is actively recruiting for its next round of returnships at Return Path and Oracle in Broomfield and TeleTech in Englewood.
Expanded talent pool
The idea to create a mid-career internship for stay-at-home moms and dads first materialized at Return Path during a broader conversation about diversity and inclusion in tech.
A company executive whose wife had taken time off to raise their family proposed the idea of creating an internship for stay-at-home moms and dads who wanted to start working again.
Matt Blumberg, Return Path's CEO and the co-chair of Path Forward's board of directors, said he "instantly fell in love with the idea."
"It matched many of our values perfectly and also addressed a growing need to expand the available talent pool for technology companies like us," Blumberg said. "And the need rang true for many of us on a personal level, having seen our moms, wives, and sisters struggle to re-establish professional careers after a break from the workforce."
After a successful first cohort of six women in early 2015, Return Path reached out to other companies to talk about expanding the returnship program that fall. They got companies such as SendGrid, ReadyTalk, SpotX, MWH Global, Moz and PayPal to adopt the idea as well.
The program's founders realized the returnship concept had the potential to expand even further. To give the idea more room to grow, they launched Path Forward and hired Tami Forman, a former marketing executive at Return Path, to be the nonprofit's executive director.
The nonprofit helps companies set up their own in-house returnship programs by training human resources staff and managers on interviewing, onboarding, managing and offboarding, Forman said. Each internship is 16 weeks long, though individual companies can choose to make them longer.
Candidates apply and interview with the company directly, though Path Forward provides language to use in their job listings to describe the program. Once candidates are hired, they participate in three full-day workshops hosted by Path Forward to set them up for success. The nonprofit also conducts virtual check-ins throughout the internship.
Though they may be interning in different parts of the country, the "returnees" can stay in touch throughout their transition back into the working world.
"The cohort effect is really high," said Cathy Hawley, senior vice president of people at Return Path. "It's really, really important for people to go through this opportunity together."
'Can't get in the door'
Like Stephens, women and men who take time off to care for their children or other family members often have a hard time convincing hiring managers to give them an interview.
There seems to be a reluctance among managers to hire anyone who hasn't followed a traditional career progression, Hawley said.
"The biggest challenge is that they just can't get in the door," said Hawley. "People see a gap and they just move on to the next resume."
If a stay-at-home mom or dad does eventually land an interview, managers may have other worries. Will this person require more training? Are their skills outdated? Is hiring this person a risky decision?
"After you cross that hurdle and get into an interview, the manager often says, 'Well, I'm safer with someone who's actually doing this job now,'" Hawley said.
The returnship format gives both the company and the employee a chance to test the waters before fully committing. Some returnship participants have found that returning to work wasn't the right choice for their family, or that the company they interned with wasn't exactly the right fit.
"For the hiring manager, it takes some of the risk out of it," said Forman. "'I literally get to try someone out and see how their skills are and give them some time to get up to speed and see if they would work for my team.' For the women, it's also an opportunity to try before they buy. They get to try out the company. 'Do they walk the walk when it comes to work-life balance? Is this the kind of environment I want to be in at this stage of my career?'"
Karen Brockwell left her job at IBM after her daughter was born. When her daughter started college, Brockwell knew she wanted to go back to work, but felt unsure of where to start. Then she discovered the returnship program at Return Path.
"Opportunities like returnships anywhere are a great opportunity for somebody who has had time away from the workplace to get back in and get a feel for being in a different environment than they've been in for a while," said Brockwell, who lives in Superior. "It's a safe place to re-enter the workforce."
Because the internship is intended as a trial period for potential new hires, Brockwell said she was welcomed by her team immediately. Though it wasn't a guarantee that she would be hired at the end of the internship, there was a good chance she would be joining their team, so they invested time and energy into helping her reacclimate.
"What I really appreciated was working with a team that was very supportive of me coming back into the workplace," Brockwell said. "They understood my need to get up to speed in certain areas. I was treated like a permanent employee from the get-go."
There's also a business case to be made for hiring employees who are returning to the workforce after time off. It's already difficult for many companies to find top talent, so the program opens up a previously untapped group of potential employees.
Because the company was willing to take a chance on them when no one else would, the returnship program also creates loyal employees, which reduces costly turnover.
Plus, companies get to hire mature workers with a lot of life experience. Stay-at-home moms and dads are essentially project managers, tasked with keeping track of several calendars at once. Having spent most of their time with kids, they understand how to manage various personalities and are often extremely patient.
Many parents become deeply involved in volunteer work, which requires organizational skills and finesse.
"Volunteer work requires getting things done through persuasion versus authority," said Forman, Path Forward's executive director. "When you're working with all volunteers, you can't tell anybody to do anything. Persuading people, rallying people around a common goal, inspiring people to be part of something — those are important skills."
Janelle Pelletier, 46, worked in computer systems engineering before she took a break to raise her three children.
She was out of the workforce for 13 years, though she sold jewelry and helped a nonprofit organize their main fundraising gala for several years.
After participating in Return Path's returnship program, she was offered a permanent position as a service delivery support coordinator in 2016.
"The main thing that people who have been out of the workforce don't realize is that you can apply a lot of your experience (to a job), even though you weren't getting paid," Pelletier said. "It was valuable to plan and coordinate the fundraising galas. That's something people do every day in their jobs — organizing projects and getting people to work together. We tend to sell ourselves short when we're not getting paid for it."
She's noticed that going back to work has created positive changes for her family, too.
"It's helped, too, with the family just being able to take on other things that Mom was always there to do," Pelletier said. "But my kids are old enough now. They're ready to take on some of those responsibilities as well."
The leaders of Path Forward says they hope to expand the program to even more companies in the future, including companies outside of the tech realm.
They hope to convince other businesses to give stay-at-home moms and dads a chance, even if their resumes don't fit the typical mold.
"They are probably not hiring people with gaps (on their resume) because of their skepticism, and they are missing out on some amazingly talented people," Blumberg, Return Path's CEO, said.