Closing The Gap

Walmart extends 'returnship' program aimed at helping women rejoin the workforce

There is no evidence that women underperform men when it comes to running money.
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Working mothers in the U.S. are three times as likely as fathers to quit their job at some point to care for their family.

Research from the Center for American Progress published in 2014 found that the average American woman who took a five-year career break at age 26 lost roughly $467,000 in lifetime earnings, including potential income and retirement savings.

To help more women transition back into the workforce, many companies, including Walmart, are now offering paid mid-career internships, known as "returnships," as part of their recruiting strategy. The retail giant recently announced that it would be expanding its partnership with the non-profit organization Path Forward to facilitate its returnship program for a second year in a row.

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"Last year around this time I shared the exciting news of a program Walmart was launching in partnership with Path Forward," Bobbie Grafeld, VP of People for Walmart Labs, said in a statement on the company's website. "It was near and dear to my heart because it focused on creating training and career opportunities for a typically untapped talent pool that I was once a part of – women and men who have paused their careers to do things like raise children or care for family members, or those who have had to relocate for their spouses' careers."

Grafeld said that in 2018, more than 30 women participated in the four-month, paid returnship program working in roles that included engineering, user experience, product management and data science. Participants attended professional development workshops and networking events, all while re-upping their skills as full-time temporary employees. Afterward, they were able to apply to any full-time available role at Walmart — ultimately, roughly 75% of participants accepted positions within the company.

This year, Grafeld says, Walmart is expanding the program to include up to 100 candidates across multiple locations including San Bruno, Sunnyvale and Carlsbad, California; Reston, Virginia; and Bentonville, Arkansas. She says she's hopeful that they "will have a similar success rate and bring even more amazing, full-time, diverse technical talent to Walmart Labs."

Goldman Sachs first introduced the concept of returnships — and the term, which it trademarked — in 2008, when the bank implemented a 10-week program specifically for professionals with a career gap. Since then, other companies, including Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan and GM, have created similar programs. 

Path Forward executive director Tami Forman tells CNBC Make It that Walmart is one of more than 50 companies the organization has worked with in the past three years. Oher partners include Netflix, Uber, Intuit and Verizon, which have all announced Spring 2019 returnship programs.

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In most cases, Forman says, participants have five to 10 years of work experience, but have taken at least a two-year break from the workforce. Though men are welcome to participate, she says that 95% of the program's applicants have been female. "It really does just reflect that out-of-work population," she says. "We have two men in one of our current spring cohorts, but I'd love to see more men take a break and take some time for their family, too."

Deborah Chin, who now works as a UX designer for Walmart Labs, joined the company last year after participating in the returnship program. She tells CNBC Make It that she took a two-and-a-half year break from the workforce after having her daughter, and had a rough time finding full-time employment afterward.

"I started looking for work probably after about 14 months of being off," she says. "It was discouraging. I applied to different jobs, but I wasn't having any luck — but I also knew that I needed to spend some time working on my portfolio as well."

Chin says that through Walmart's program she was able to build out her portfolio, and benefit from a speaker series and networking opportunities with company executives.

Hagit Katzenelson, who works as a product manager for Walmart, echoes Chin's sentiments. She says that after taking a nine-year career break to care for a sick family member and three young kids, she struggled to find gainful employment.

"My total career break was nine years, and out of those years, I was actively looking for a job for the last five," says Katzenelson, who did some part-time consulting work during her break.

Chin, who worked as a contract teacher's assistant before her returnship, says she hopes more companies become open to the idea of adding similar mid-career programs to their recruitment process.

"I think the more that this talent pool is noticed, it will really help women to make those necessary decisions as they're trying to plan their families," she says. "As they decide whether or not they're going to take time off, it won't be as scary a decision to make because they'll know that there are ways back in."

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