By Katie Morell
A little more than six years ago, Rita Kakati-Shah excitedly walked into her boss’s office in New York City to deliver the news of her first pregnancy. She was expecting the conversation to start off with congratulatory remarks and then progress to a discussion on paid leave that would span up to a year—the norm in her home country, the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, the meeting didn’t meet her expectations.
“My boss told me I could take six weeks off unpaid and submit a disability claim after that,” she remembers. “It was almost like a slap in the face. I walked into that meeting eager to announce the next chapter of my life, and left the meeting feeling like I’d done something wrong.”
Kakati-Shah’s experience is common among new parents. The United States is one of the only developed countries without a federal policy for paid parental leave. The topic is hotly contested, depending on the political party, but the issue of career reentry isn’t only reserved for parents. Anyone who takes a career break—be it to care for a loved one, try a different vocation, start a company, serve in the military, and so on—can struggle with returning to the workforce.
Thankfully, some companies in the private sector are taking on this issue by offering so-called returnships, paid internships geared for career returners, with opportunities for full-time employment. Others are actively recruiting for full-time roles from pools of candidates who’ve stepped away.
Kakati-Shah is part of this solution. In 2016, inspired by her own journey, she founded Uma, a platform that matches women reentering the workforce after a career break or transition with companies open to hiring those reentering. Uma was named after the Hindu goddess Uma, who embodies strength, courage, and determination. Many of the opportunities are framed as Umaships, where Uma works closely with a candidate and a partner company to create an experience that works for both parties and often includes workshops and mentorships.
Most Umaships are short-term (between 10 weeks and six months), and many will “blossom into permanent offers,” says Kakati-Shah. “But even if they don’t blossom, it is still a win-win because it is just helpful to get out there again. These opportunities can show people what they can do after taking time off.”
In addition to companies like Uma (Après is another company that matches returners to companies; see sidebar for more information), some Fortune 500 corporations are helping to end the stigma of taking career breaks by offering formal returnships.
“What I would like to see—as a new generation grows up—is for taking a career break to be commonplace,” says Liz Markus. “For it not to be a matter of if you take a break but when, and to not make it out to be a big thing anymore.”
A longtime Johnson & Johnson employee, Markus is especially passionate about this topic. Last year, she transitioned from her previous role at the company to director of its Re-Ignite Program, a formal return-to-work returnship for experienced professionals in the fields of STEM, manufacturing, and design.
“Re-Ignite is structured as a four-month internship where returners can dust off skills, experience high-touch onboarding, and get mentorship,” she says. “At the end of those four months, if there is an opportunity for a full-time role, they can apply for that.”
Re-Ignite is designed for people who’ve taken at least two years away from their careers. Applicants don’t need to have previously worked at Johnson & Johnson. Markus says participants have ranged from people with engineering backgrounds who worked in education for 25 years and wanted to get back to their roots to returning parents with previous work experience.
Not every returnship program looks the same. Some companies aren’t going the formal internship route, but instead try to accommodate returning parents who struggle to go from not working after the birth or adoption of a child to full-time. PwC is one of those companies. In the summer of 2018, the multinational firm announced a new phased return-to- work policy that gives parents the option to work 60 percent of their hours for 100 percent pay for four consecutive weeks after a block of parental leave.
Talat Mangla loves this idea. A director of assurance, she has worked for PwC for more than 12 years out of its Washington, DC, office. In that time, she’s had three children. With her first and second child, she took five months off each time—by using a combination of short-term disability, company leave, and vacation time. When she had her third child in 2016, she knew she needed more time.
“Back then, I had a one-year-old and a three-year-old—both terrible sleepers,” she remembers, adding that she ended up taking 11 months off, with the approval of her manager.
While getting ready for each maternity leave, Mangla created a spreadsheet with every piece of information important to new parents at the firm—including how to chart hours; how much time off the firm allows; and tidbits that others may not know, such as that employees can use their prior year’s performance rating for their first year back after the birth or adoption of a child.
Word of her spreadsheet has, well, spread.
“I’m not posting it on the firm intranet or anything, but I share it with other women who ask, and we talk about how to make leave work for them,” she says, adding that the introduction of PwC’s phased return-to-work program has been music to her ears.
“I love the policy. It takes so much to come back. It is nice to see companies offering assistance in this way.”
Although some companies are trying to help career returners, individuals can feel that the transition is an uphill battle. Here is some advice to help ease into a new, work-focused phase.
Build your confidence
Kakati-Shah, Mangla, and Markus say that lack of confidence is one of the biggest obstacles for people reentering the workforce after taking a break. One of the best ways to build confidence is to brush up on work skills with classes.
“Try free online courses or community college classes,” recommends Markus. “Just learning can build confidence.”
What’s more, if you’ve taken time off to spend with your child, remember that you’ve been exercising many skills while in this phase of your life: negotiating with a toddler for one; collaborating with other family members for another. And don’t forget that volunteering at school utilizes leadership skills and other skills that will be valuable when you return to work.
Leverage your network
“Start asking friends out for coffee and telling them that you’re thinking about reentering the workforce,” suggests Kakati-Shah. “And then look on Linked- In for people in your industry. If you don’t have a LinkedIn account, get your profile up there and know that it doesn’t have to be perfect.”
Talk to role models
Remember that many, many women have taken breaks and come back to work. Find other women who’ve done this and talk with them.
“Ask them how they did it,” recommends Mangla. “I remember a woman once told me that she buys party veggie trays once a week to make sure her kids are eating well. You don’t have to do this alone. People out there can help and provide support from their own experience.” DW
Katie Morell is a journalist based in Sausalito, California. Read more of her work at Katiemorell.com.