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Helping Skilled Workers Return to Work following a Career Break: Tapping Under-Utilized Talent to Grow the Economy

April 11, 2018

With approximately 4 million baby boomers retiring every year, the unemployment rate down to 4.1%, and a growing economy, the US faces a projected period of increasing labor shortages, especially for experienced workers.1 Educated women (and men) below retirement age who are not in the labor force represent a source of underutilized talent and skills. Making better use of these workers' talents has the potential to benefit the individuals themselves, employers, and our overall US economy.


Scope of the Opportunity

Among Americans ages 25-54, the majority of bachelor’s degrees and graduate degrees are now held by women. These highly-educated women are more likely to engage in paid work than women with less education. Nonetheless, among the 25.3 million American women in this age group with bachelor’s degrees or higher in 2017, 4.2 million were out of the labor force.2 Some of these women are disabled or retired, but the remaining 3.6 million women might be enticed to return to work under the right conditions.

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Many factors in addition to education affect individual women’s decisions regarding whether to engage in paid work, including whether she has children (or other family members) to care for, overall household income, and her marital status. Of course, these same factors apply to men. Yet it remains true that having children increases men’s likelihood of labor force participation while decreasing women’s likelihood, even among the college-educated. Thus, among this population, the difficulties associated with re-entering the labor force following a career break affect women disproportionately.

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Given rapid changes in technology, laws, regulations, and even software used in many jobs, someone who has been out of the workforce for more than a few months may find that she lacks specific skills and knowledge that are now seen as required for the job she once had. In some fields (e.g., law, accounting, finance, healthcare) where content knowledge changes regularly or that require continuing professional education and recertification, the challenge may be even greater.

Many educated women who do manage to return to employment following a break may end up “under-employed,” in the sense that they are working in a job that is below their skill level or are working fewer hours than they desire. This throws them off track for later promotions. We do not have good data on the size of this group in the US, but surveys in the United Kingdom (UK) indicate 40% of women returning to work in the UK experience “occupational downgrading.” Among working mothers in the UK who are working part-time, 37% would increase the hours they work if they could work more flexibly.3

Why Employers and Others Should Care

The non-employment and underemployment of millions of women who are among the most highly educated and skilled Americans represent a significant loss: to them, to the employers who would hire them (and who are finding it difficult to replace skilled baby boomers who are retiring), and to our US economy overall, which is leaving this valuable human capital untapped. Of course, not all college-educated women who are out of the labor force necessarily want to return to paid work. But already many do return, and more might if the conditions were right. For example, if the 290,000 American women with BAs or higher who are currently out of the labor force and say they want to return to work did so, it would add almost $33 billion in productive capacity to the US economy and increase GDP by more than 0.15 percent.4 Providing better “on-ramps” for re-entry into jobs commensurate with their skills and more flexible working conditions following re-entry might encourage greater numbers of highly educated women (and men) to consider returning to work.

Companies should care because, in addition to filling their immediate needs for skilled talent, college-educated women represent their primary source for gender-diverse senior leadership and board positions further down the line. To the extent that women leave the talent pipeline during their early or mid-careers and then find it hard to re-enter at a similar level, it means that there are fewer women with adequate experience in the pool when it comes time to choose senior leadership. Many women seeking to re-enter the work force following a break are in their 40s or 50s, which means that in addition to education, they bring maturity and experience, and are more “settled” (e.g., fewer maternity leaves, spousal job relocations). These women are often very committed to the companies that demonstrate that they value their skills by hiring them.

Current Efforts and Best Practices

In both the US and elsewhere some efforts have been made to address this issue.

“Internships” for returning professionals
Some companies are attempting to engage and work with returning professionals through mid-career “internships” aimed at professionals with two or more years out of the labor force.5 Most of these formal internship programs are paid and last between one to six months. They often involve a skills training or professional development component. Typically, participants work on a special project or perform the actual job duties of a permanent employee.6 Some of these programs boast high conversion rates – i.e., interns being hired by the companies where they interned – of 50-100%.7

Some companies create their own internship programs. Others work with one of several organizations that specialize in connecting returning professionals to employers. Programs provided by such outside organizations include mid-career internship programs, management briefings, and recruiter training. Some organizations target particular industries, such as legal or financial services, and place returning professionals at participating firms for year-long paid positions. At least one takes a more hands-on approach, personally vetting candidates and providing training and coaching to returning professionals before placing them at a participating company.

Flexible work policies
Some women who are out of the labor force are ready to return to a full-time, traditional work schedule. For others, however, the constraints of the traditional workday present a barrier to returning to work.8 Surveys indicate that flexible work arrangements could entice women who currently are not looking for work to take a job.9 “Flexible work” refers to how, where, and when the work is completed. Flexible work policies may include reduced hours, telework, or simply providing flexibility in when the work day starts and ends. Flexible work opportunities also may help companies keep some employees from exiting the workforce entirely.10

Professional networks
Many women reentering the workforce after a prolonged absence face the challenge of rebuilding their professional network. Career re-entry events and programming can help women reskill while simultaneously making connections to other professionals.11 One organization hosts a daylong Return-to-Work conference where individuals can network with other returning workers and recruiters while learning how to plan for re-entry. Several organizations offer professional and technical skills training in a classroom-like environment. Another approach is geographically-based return-to-work “circles”, which connect women who are in similar career circumstances with each other.

Companies can do more to remain connected with their skilled workers (men and women) who leave the company for a career break by allowing company “alumni” to remain connected to the workplace, such as through existing internal peer networks. One example is a company that offers a voluntary, unpaid “off-ramping” program for high-performing professionals who leave the firm to be full-time caregivers. The program lets exiting employees remain connected to the firm in a variety of ways for up to five years.

Actively recruiting returning professionals
The most direct way to reengage women returning to the workforce following a career break is to recruit actively from this talent pool. The internship model is one method to actively recruit returning professionals; however, these programs are typically limited in the number of openings they offer. And while flexible work opportunities and other practices may attract candidates to employers, they do not necessarily solve the internal issue of the stigma associated with a career break in the eyes of many hiring managers.

This causes qualified candidates to be overlooked. Creating an organizational culture that accepts and respects the non-linear career path that many women follow is a challenging but vital aspect of recruiting women who have taken a career break. Many skilled women outside the labor force may believe that fulfilling opportunities commensurate with their skills are not available to them after part-time work or a career break. Employers may need to provide more entry points for full-time, meaningful work for returning professionals and reassess unspoken biases that make it difficult for returning professionals to transition into a position that matches their skills and expertise. Additional efforts to ease women’s re-entry into the labor force after a career break, such as onboarding programs designed specifically for them, may also be needed.

As the efforts described above illustrate, some steps have been taken to help ease the entry of highly-skilled women (and men) back into the labor force following a career break. Particularly in fields such as finance and law, some large employers have created formal re-entry programs. Yet many medium and small employers, who account for the vast majority of jobs, may be unaware of the opportunity or do not know how to tap this underutilized source of talent. Given that internship programs for returning professionals can attract as many as a thousand applications for just 25 openings, it appears that there is unmet demand for efforts of this type.

The Path Forward

Making it easier for highly-skilled women (and men) to return to the labor force following a career break offers an important path to growing the US economy. Businesses should do all they can to engage and attract this talent to the extent possible.

As a business-led organization that pursues solutions in the nation’s interest, CED will continue to work with its membership and partners to promote this promising approach to strengthening the American labor force and economy.

End Notes

  1. Gad Levanon, et al., Help Wanted: What Looming Labor Shortages Mean for Your Business, The Conference Board, April 2016.

  2. Steven Ruggles, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Josiah Grover, and Matthew Sobek, Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 6.0 [Machine-readable database], University of Minnesota, 2015 (using data from the Current Population Survey).

  3. PwC, Women Returners, November 2016.

  4. Current Population Survey (CPS), calculations by The Conference Board.

  5. Carol Fishman Cohen, “The 40-Year-Old Intern,” Harvard Business Review, November 2012.

  6. The “internship” designation can also encompass other types of short-term, contract, or project-based work arrangements. While they may be less formal in structure, they still serve the basic function of providing returning workers with practical work experience and giving employers the opportunity to assess their work.

  7. Carol Fishman Cohen, “Applying The Internship Model To Retirees,” Forbes, January 2017.

  8. What works for whom – and when – varies for each individual. For instance, someone with a five-year-old may find that an in-the-office 9-6 work schedule is not manageable, but that may change when her child is older and more independent.

  9. Liz Hamel, Jamie Firth, and Mollyann Brodie, “Kaiser Family Foundation/New York Times/CBS News Non-Employed Poll,” Kaiser Family Foundation, December 2014.

  10. An important component of effective flexible work policies is that they are backed up in policy and practice. Flexible work policies won’t serve to attract or retain workers if employees believe that individuals who make use of them may be marginalized.

  11. For instance, participant cohorts built through mid-career internship programs can help to build both professional and emotional support networks amongst women facing similar career transition challenges. See Carol Fishman Cohen, For Professionals Returning to Work, There’s Power in the Cohort, Harvard Business Review (HBR), March 30, 2015.