Opportunity USA

Returnships for older workers: Proceed with caution

Dardespot | E+ | Getty Images

After being a stay-at-home mom for 10 years, Kirsten Cheney wanted to pick up her career as a graphic designer. The 46-year-old divorced mother of four returned to Vermont from Boston after reconnecting with a fellow designer who was running his own studio in Burlington.

She got a "returnship" with her friend—an internship-like program for experienced people who have been out of the labor force for some time.

"I met with him and suggested the returnship and started at his studio in 2009," Cheney said. "I would go in a few times a week, and he had me working on basic design tasks—which was great since over the last 10 years much of the technology end of the business had evolved and I needed to catch up."

She didn't intend to get a full-time job there and got no pay but "it did update my work experience and help me build connections in the Burlington area," said Cheney, who now has her own freelance business, Swannery Design.

"If you can swing it, I would highly recommend a returnship for anyone trying to get back into the workforce," she said.

Cheney's returnship is a variation on intern or "extern" programs that companies of all sizes are using to bring people who have been out of the workplace for a while back in, even if temporarily.

"Employers have told us that they've been moving to a model where the contract consultant is a permanent part of their workforce," said Carol Fishman Cohen, co-founder of IRelaunch, which runs career re-entry programs.

"Returnships are part of this new way of work opportunities," she added.

(Read more: Retirement roulette is the new American normal)

But not everyone sees them as a first choice.

Returnships raise concerns about pay and labeling, said Allison O'Kelly, founder and CEO of Mom Corps, a career development firm.

"Consideration for a returnship should be after many other avenues have been exhausted," she said. "You don't want a company's clever marketing-speak to follow you career-wise."

Started with Goldman Sachs

Here's the downside to retaining older workers

Goldman Sachs started its returnship program five years ago and, in fact, has trademarked the term. The emphasis was on offering workers a chance to return to temporary employment.

"We started the first program in 2008 after looking through research and after talking with a few other firms about how difficult it was for women to return to the workforce," said Galit Pearlman, vice president of talent at Goldman.

"It came out of the concept that people at some levels take a career break," she added.

Goldman's returnship program offers 10 weeks of work at competitive salaries to qualified candidates who have been out of work at least two years. They are paid from day one, including training, Pearlman said. Both men and women are eligible, and age ranges vary. The programs are available in Goldman's offices in New York and in Bangalore, India.

The program is highly selective, she said. Only 19 of 1,000 applicants were chosen for the 2013 class.

(Read more: Shutdown hammers working poor)

"We can take someone from another industry," Pearlman said. "For instance, a lawyer who's been out of work might have a skill set for us, or a chemist in research and development could find a way to leverage their talents. But they do have to have an interest in our industry."

About half of those in the program get full-time work at Goldman, although of course nothing is guaranteed, Pearlman said.

"The program has never been with the idea that we are committing to a full-time job for anyone," she said. "The main objective—and we make this clear—is that we provide them with skills to re-enter the workforce."

Spreading to other areas

Pearlman said she has been in talks with other financial firms about returnships. In addition, businesses and institutions outside the financial sector are building on what Goldman started.

"We spoke to Goldman Sachs about how to set up a program, and it took us about a year to put one together," said Amy Gewirtz, director of the New Directions program at Pace University's law school.

"We started what we call an externship ... where lawyers who had stepped aside for a time and want to work again can get back," she said.

"It's a five-month program. They don't get paid and have to pay $7,000 to participate, but they do get a certificate after some 240 hours of training with us," Gewirtz said.

"We try to keep it small, around 15 to 20 people each session," she added. "They're mostly men in [their] mid-40s."

'Can take focus off looking for job'

Few companies pay their interns, and those that do including Google. Attempts are under way to get all interns paid for their work.

This new version of internships for older workers raises red flags for some.

"We've seen pay all over the map for returnships," said iRelaunch's Cohen. "Some pay by the hour or by stipends. or they prorate the pay for the time worked based on someone's salary in the firm who does a similar job. But It's important that the person get paid."

(Disclosure: IRelaunch has a financial relationship with Goldman Sachs.)

"I don't think it works against them, but doing these programs for 12- to 20-week periods can take the focus off looking for a permanent job," said Margaret-Ann Cole, senior vice president at Right Management, a career development firm.

"I would advise someone to go to a company through a temporary agency," she said.

The term itself bothers O'Kelly at Mom Corps.

"The returnship is most likely a catchy moniker that doesn't illustrate what the majority of the workforce is looking for," she said.

The title "has the potential to undermine great work and skills," O'Kelly said. "Contractors are professionals; interns are learning to be one. It may be worth asking if you could describe your work with the company as a contract position."

New form of employment

With the job picture still weak, especially for the long-term unemployed, returnships are a way to get a foot in the door and a possible paycheck, experts said.

They may also be a new form of temporary employment.

"We're seeing slow growth of returnships in large companies, but we're seeing more start-ups and smaller firms turn to it," Cohen said. "It's a good way to judge how people work."

If a returnship is in your immediate plans, experts advise that you go into it with your eyes open.

"Be clear that you understand your role, the time frame of the returnship and how you will be contributing to the organization," said O'Kelly at Mom Corps.

But for Kirsten Cheney, a returnship was the right move.

(Read more: The real victims of shutdown: Government workers)

"It prepared me for the technological changes that had taken place while I was offline for 10 years," she said.

"And it improved my confidence and reacquainted me with the rhythm of 9 to 5, all with low commitment and pressure. I'd certainly recommend it."

—By CNBC's Mark Koba. Follow him on Twitter @MarkKobaCNBC