Reentry Programs Bring Back Skilled, Savvy Workers

The demand for reentry engineers and technologists expected to soar as economic recovery, infrastructure work, and diversity and inclusion efforts take priority.

By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor

Jennifer Coryell, P.E., found a position perfectly suited for her with her former employer — after she had left the workforce for eight years to raise a family. Kristen Bridgeman left the workforce for 20 years to raise her three children and supported them by plunging into nonprofit and volunteer work. Both Coryell and Bridgeman discovered new skills, talents, and work/life balance that ultimately led to their return to satisfying full-time jobs.

Coryell’s hiring followed her selection in engineering and construction firm CDM Smith’s Reboot Re-entry Program, a 16-week reentry program run in conjunction with SWE and iRelaunch’s STEM Reentry Task Force.

The key to the success of reentry programs, experts say, is that the “relaunchers” — people who’ve left the workforce and who want to return — are hired to fill a full-time job, and are ushered into their new positions with a support system that helps them succeed.

“I wasn’t stigmatized. I was fully a member of a team,” Coryell said of her Reboot experience. “There was a bit of an understanding that the Reboot program has a training element … That made me feel really comfortable. If I had gone straight to work as a regular hire, I might have felt insecure admitting that I could have needed help.”

Jennifer Coryell, P.E., water resources engineer, CDM Smith

“Companies are well advised to trust their employees wherever they are. It could be the difference between someone needing to take a break or not.”

– Jennifer Coryell, P.E., water resources engineer, CDM Smith

Coryell, who earned her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and holds a professional engineer’s license in California and Illinois, transitioned in May 2021 to a full-time, permanent position with CDM Smith. She performs stormwater master planning and green infrastructure design, with a focus on water quality compliance. A water resources engineer who earned a master’s degree in political science during her gap years, Coryell was one of three reentry participants hired during CDM Smith’s COVID-altered 2021 remote program. “It’s been great,” Coryell said. “The sky’s the limit.”

Bridgeman, who holds a bachelor’s degree in biology with an emphasis on biochemistry and a master’s in chemical engineering, started her reentry journey as an electrical engineering manager. She was initially hired as a contractor nearly 10 years ago, and then quickly converted to full time at Cummins engine manufacturer. She’s the technical effectiveness office director, where she ensures that engineers work as efficiently as possible by scrutinizing resources, workplace analytics, and knowledge management use.

Her return-to-work experience led Bridgeman to help oversee Cummins’ reentry program, which started five years ago. She appreciates the cohort setup, in which the reentry group sticks together while they integrate into the company, forming a bond. “They rely on each other,” she said. “They have each other’s backs.” For her efforts, Bridgeman was named one of SWE’s 2021 “Women Engineers You Should Know.”

Bridgeman’s takeaway: One size fits all is not the way to go with reentry programs. Even small companies can run successful projects by thinking creatively, such as gaining young employees’ support in becoming onboarding buddies to reentry candidates.

Yet both Bridgeman and Coryell, in separate interviews, lament that people who take career breaks are still stigmatized, and they say they hope to see reentry programs go mainstream.

Coryell said she believes that a work break “creates an inaccurate sense [by hiring companies] that there’s going to be a lower work product or that there’s some problem.”

“I believe it’s the opposite,” she said. “I’ve come back more mature, and I have a strong drive and focus. Getting that break invigorates people instead of burning them out.”

That’s especially important — and challenging — as women continue to shoulder the burden of child care, at-home schooling, and household scheduling as the COVID-19 pandemic wears on.

Coryell sees hope in programs such as CDM Smith’s, which lets employees set hybrid, flexible schedules. “The idea that people can’t do well when they’re not being watched has proven wrong,” she said, referring to research that showed increased productivity by homebound workers during the COVID lockdown. “Companies are well advised to trust their employees wherever they are,” she said. “It could be the difference between someone needing to take a break or not.”

In fact, “relaunchers” typically leave the workforce for reasons that have nothing to do with their work performance, said Jennifer Howland, managing director of the iRelaunch reentry global consulting practice. Howland, who received SWE’s Advocating Women in Engineering Award in 2019, co-leads the organization with Carol Fishman Cohen, its CEO and co-founder. With Jennifer Abman Scott, SWE’s executive vice president, strategic partnerships and events, Howland also co-leads the STEM Reentry Task Force.

The COVID-19 pandemic has expanded the demographics of people seeking work reentry, as women and men left their jobs for reasons ranging from child care to eldercare to health-and-safety concerns.

Jennifer Howland, managing director, iRelaunch; co-lead, STEM Reentry Task Force

“Return-to-work programs also can improve retention for the current midcareer technical population who knows they have a pathway back into the workplace if their circumstances change and they need to take a career break.”

– Jennifer Howland, managing director, iRelaunch; co-lead, STEM Reentry Task Force

Turning obstacles into opportunities

Yet hurdles remain.

The Future Forum Pulse, a quarterly survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers around the world, reveals that executives’ preference to return to the office is threatening employee satisfaction and retention, particularly for women, working parents — men and women — and people of color. With 57% of global knowledge workers open to looking for a new job in the next year, companies that dismiss employee preferences risk losing top talent, the survey concludes.

Add to that a separate study by business management consultant New View Strategies that found women’s experience with gender inequality in the technology workplace, as well as with the COVID pandemic, had influenced 38% of the respondents to plan to leave their jobs in the next two years.

Company leaders also acknowledge that, as an Accenture study revealed, their legacy AI-enabled hiring software spits out people with resume gaps, as well as veterans, immigrants, refugees, returning retirees, and people — women and men — who care for children and/or the elderly.

That’s a huge concern, given that President Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill will pour billions into the nation’s roads, ports, and power lines, at the same time employers look to diversify their leadership ranks as the economy revives.

Howland prefers to see the bright side.

Reentry programs turn these issues into opportunities for employers, especially in hiring nontraditional talent, said Howland, pointing out that iRelaunch has worked with nearly 200 clients around the world to establish their own reentry programs or to partner on return-to-work programming. iRelaunch also supports a community of nearly 100,000 relaunchers before, during, and after they resume their careers.

“[Reentry programs] allow the sourcing ‘net’ to be cast more broadly, enabling a wider pool of talented technical and diverse candidates for consideration,” Howland said.

Return-to-work programs can also boost an employer’s reputation with hires just out of university, midcareer professionals, and what Howland called “regrettable losses” — recouping the employer’s original investment.

“The [reentry] program is an important signal when recruiting early career professionals who are just starting their careers,” Howland said. “Return-to-work programs also can improve retention for the current midcareer technical population who knows they have a pathway back into the workplace if their circumstances change and they need to take a career break.”

“Lastly, for those leaders involved with implementing a reentry program, it can be one of the most rewarding assignments of their career, like it was for me,” said Howland, who created IBM’s Tech Re-Entry program.

SWE’s program is Scott’s passion project. “No matter how old you are, you have value,” she said. “You always have that engineering mind. Technology companies are always updating their employees’ skills anyway, so why not bring back someone who knows how to lead, how to be a team player, and how to communicate with others?”

Jennifer Abman Scott, executive vice president, strategic partnerships and events, SWE

“No matter how old you are, you have value. You always have that engineering mind. Technology companies are always updating their employees’ skills anyway, so why not bring back someone who knows how to lead, how to be a team player, and how to communicate with others?”

– Jennifer Abman Scott, executive vice president, strategic partnerships and events, SWE

Getting Reboarding Right

So what are the best practices of creating a reentry program?

Bridgeman’s experience prompted these suggestions:

  • Decide how long the trial period is. Settle on an approach. The key is one that fits your culture. Cummins runs a six-month returnship and hires each successful candidate for a specific job.
  • Set parameters. Cummins, for example, requires that its reentry participants have been out of the workforce for two years or longer, and have had at least five years’ experience before having left the workforce.
  • Make sure upper management champions the program.
  • Depending on your talent pipeline, figure out how you’ll let people know how to apply and participate.
  • Take care in how you write reentry job descriptions so that the participants have room to learn, upskill, or reskill.

SWE and iRelaunch share with STEM Reentry Task Force participants sample timelines and hold monthly consulting meetings while employers launch their small pilot programs and train their recruiters and managers. The task force organizations source candidates through SWE, iRelaunch, and on their own.

“We don’t tell them who to hire or what the program has to look like,” Scott said. “It’s a collaborative space.”

For people who are worried about succeeding, Bridgeman said, “If you can get a degree in engineering, you’ve proven to the world that you can learn to learn. You’re going to be able to come up to speed. It will just take some time.”

“By having a reentry program, you’re saying you believe people can take a break and come back,” she said.

“I wasn’t sure that I wanted to work full time as an engineer,” Bridgeman said of her return. “I was working really long hours when I initially left. How is this going to work? By having a trial period, it gives the person permission to try it. You get to try it without burning any bridges.”

Kristen Bridgeman, technical effectiveness office director, Cummins

“If you can get a degree in engineering, you’ve proven to the world that you can learn to learn. You’re going to be able to come up to speed. It will just take some time.”

– Kristen Bridgeman, technical effectiveness office director, Cummins

Julie Lucas, senior manager of talent acquisition programs and operations at CDM Smith, who oversees its Reboot career reentry program, said the company accepted SWE’s invitation to join its STEM Reentry Task Force in 2018, when the workforce was a candidate’s market.

“You can’t just keep posting [job notices] and praying,” said Lucas, who has recruited in various roles for CDM Smith for 14 years. “We needed to find passive leads — people not looking but who might consider a new job.”

The company’s 16-week reentry program has been “wildly successful” and hosted its largest group of reentry participants during COVID. Participants must have been out of the workforce for at least two years and have at least three years’ work experience. “We hosted biweekly lunch-and-learns remotely [during COVID lockdown],” Lucas said. “We used video so we could see each other regularly and talk about how things were going. I did personal check-ins.”

Lucas said it’s important that reentry participants understand their job responsibilities and know whom they report to. Besides getting support from their supervisor and work team, they’re also assigned a buddy. “The buddy is the person who checks in and makes sure the [reentry participant] has a sounding board,” she said.

She also credited CEO Tim Wall, who started work in CDM Smith’s co-op program, with wholeheartedly supporting people who show gusto, drive, and initiative, regardless of their career paths. “We’re hiring for careers — not jobs,” is a frequent Wall quote.

The Reboot program has won over employees, too, and the company has seen a jump in people — family and neighbors — whom they tell about the opportunity.

“When we’re not recruiting, people can join the company’s talent community and upload their resumes,” Lucas said. “We let them know when we’ve opened up our positions.”

Lucas and her team include social media outreach for CDM Smith’s Reboot Reentry Program, and even think outside the box by targeting Facebook groups designed for engineers who are also mothers to network and spread the word.

Julie Lucas, senior manager, talent acquisition programs and operations, CDM Smith

“You can’t just keep posting [job notices] and praying. We needed to find passive leads — people not looking but who might consider a new job.”

– Julie Lucas, senior manager, talent acquisition programs and operations, CDM Smith

SWE’s Reentry Task Force

SWE’s partnership with iRelaunch to start the STEM Reentry Task Force in late 2015 has grown to 34 organizations, hosting programs in more than 14 countries. It started with seven organizations. SWE promotes the task force opportunities to its 41,000 global members, reentry listserv, and through social media.

The STEM reentry program started after iRelaunch CEO Fishman Cohen, co-author of Back on the Career Track: A Guide for Stay-at-Home Moms Who Want to Return to Work, spoke at SWE’s 2014 annual conference. Cohen met Scott, SWE’s executive vice president, strategic partnerships and events, and the two realized that STEM employers could benefit from bringing back professionals who’d left the workforce.

Scott said she had already been asked by SWE’s corporate partners, organizational members, and companies of all sizes how they could find and hire more midcareer and senior-level women. “A huge number of women have left the STEM workforce, so I thought, ‘Our partners would be interested in this,’” Scott said. “This is a perfect way of getting women into those midcareer and more senior roles.”

Employers that join the SWE/iRelaunch program pay a fee to go through intensive grounding in setting up a reentry program tailored to their needs. More than 84% of the total 700 people who’ve participated were hired when the return-to-work programs were completed.

Organizations looking for more information may email reentry@swe.org or contact Scott at Jennifer.Scott@swe.org.

Professionals looking to return to work can go to the website Reentry.SWE.org to learn more about the companies participating in the task force and reentry programs and to sign up for the listserv for program announcements.

Scott said she has noticed that organization leaders are becoming more comfortable with professionals who have “gaps” in their resumes because they realize “these folks have the skills they’re looking for.”

Some return-to-work programs have reduced the minimum career break from two years to one, which helps employers expand hiring to include relaunchers who left during COVID. Examples include Mastercard, TD Bank, Amazon, IBM, Oracle, and Raytheon Technologies.

Scott said a few employers have even transitioned to directly hiring reentry workers rather than requiring that they go through a special time-bound returnship.

The latest challenge is to expand reentry programs in sectors just beginning to show interest in them, such as state and local governments. The state of Utah launched Return Utah in July to attract workers who want to update their professional skills after an extended career absence. “Our state agencies will lead the way and show all employers that returnships can help them develop talent as well as improve prospects for so many workers in our community,” Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said in announcing the program.

“We should all do what we can to get women and the economy back to work. The country’s economic recovery needs initiatives like this one, and we look forward to supporting efforts to get this legislation to the president’s desk.”

– Karen Horting, CAE, executive director and CEO, SWE

Making returnships part of public policy

SWE is working to help small and midsize STEM companies with reentry programs, and applauds federal legislation that would provide funding to small and medium-size STEM businesses to offer returnships for midcareer workers seeking to return or transition into the STEM workforce.

The bipartisan legislation is dubbed the STEM Restoring Employment Skills through Targeted Assistance, Re-entry, and Training (RESTART) Act. The initiative “recognizes the successes of existing ‘returnship’ programs and sees the promise of them as the country’s workforce needs all the STEM talent it can get,” said Karen Horting, CAE, SWE’s executive director and CEO.

“We should all do what we can to get women and the economy back to work,” she said. “The country’s economic recovery needs initiatives like this one, and we look forward to supporting efforts to get this legislation to the president’s desk.”

U.S. Senator Jacky Rosen (D-Nevada), a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions and the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, alongside Senators Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Mississippi) and Mark Kelly (D-Arizona), introduced the legislation in April 2021.

 “As a former computer programmer, I understand firsthand the value of a STEM education and how it can open doors for successful careers,” Rosen said.

Representatives Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pennsylvania) and Jim Baird, Ph.D. (R-Indiana), have introduced identical companion legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

And experts say career breaks aren’t going away. “Studies show that millennials are anticipating taking career breaks in greater numbers than we have seen in the past,” Howland said.

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