In the 2015 movie "The Intern," Robert De Niro portrays Ben Whittaker, a 70-year-old man entering back into the working world as, you guessed it, an intern. During an appointment, an incredulous receptionist tells Whittaker that she thought her boss was meeting her new intern and he replies that yep, he's the one. That scenario from the movie is not all that unusual now. The dialogue is actually referring to a returnship. The term was coined around 2008 when Goldman Sachs used it to describe the programs they had designed to allow people to re-enter the workforce after a period of absence.
The program was created to allow experienced, "older" workers to re-enter the workforce, sometimes in a new niche, sometimes doing what they had done prior to their leaving. Either way, the program could be a win-win, providing opportunities for workers to test the waters and prove their viability and for employers to verify skills and determine competence.
Returnships are perfect for anyone taking time away because of their own or a close family member's medical needs, for parents (especially women) who choose to stay home with their children for a time, for military personnel (especially men) who were returning after deployment and even for retirees like Ben who were just plain bored.
In the movie, Ben laments that "retirement is an ongoing, relentless effort in creativity. Yoga, cooking, classes in Mandarin." He admits he's tried everything and quite simply, is bored out of his mind.
Enter the opportunity of a returnship. Whether it is paid or unpaid work, returnships give people who have left the job market a chance to get back in -- an opportunity to "fill the gap."
Employers have traditionally looked for employees who have solid, stable careers working in the same niche. They want to see promotions, advancement and a proven track record of success that is as closely aligned to their needs as possible. Resumes with gaps don't make it very far in the hiring process.
Words alone usually won't explain the gaps well enough to satisfy the boss. Returnships allow people to prove it. When a returnship works well, a permanent hire is often the result. If not, workers have some solid, recent experience to put on their resume; some confidence to talk about their experience and, maybe, a few new networking names.
Diane Borhani, talent director at Deloitte LLP and leader of Deloitte's Encore Program, says that returnships provide a new point of entry into an organization and offer talented, qualified people the opportunity to continue to contribute. At Deloitte, about 90% of individuals who complete a returnship move into permanent, full-time employment. At Deloitte they are so popular that several run simultaneously throughout the year.
When returnships were introduced, jobs in general were difficult to find. Now that the economy is stronger and unemployment as low as it's been in 50 years, returnships are gaining again in popularity.
In 2017, BP created a pilot program to support re-entry to the workforce. The program was successful and now has expanded. In this program, participants are paid and the potential for permanent, full-time positions is definitely on the table.
Creative programs that provide viable job opportunities to a variety of people and also can fulfill a company's growing needs for diversity and talent are more important than ever as demand increases. Employers realize the wealth of knowledge and experience that looking at a broader group of workers will bring to the table.
Returnships work because, as Ben says at the end of "The Intern:" "Musicians don't retire. They stop when there's no more music in them. I still have music in me." And American businesses are happy to hear that tune.
• Cynthia K. Wade is the founder and managing director of do-over.me, which provides practical, professional support to anyone seeking meaningful employment.