Carol Fishman Cohen
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People returning to work after a career break: I call them relaunchers. These are people who have taken career breaks for elder care, for childcare reasons, pursuing a personal interest or a personal health issue. Closely related are career transitioners of all kinds: veterans, military spouses, retirees coming out of retirement or repatriating expats. Returning to work after a career break is hard because of a disconnect between the employers and the relaunchers. Employers can view hiring people with a gap on their resume as a high-risk proposition, and individuals on career break can have doubts about their abilities to relaunch their careers, especially if they've been out for a long time. This disconnect is a problem that I'm trying to help solve.

Now, successful relaunchers are everywhere and in every field. This is Sami Kafala. He's a nuclear physicist in the UK who took a five-year career break to be home with his five children. The Singapore press recently wrote about nurses returning to work after long career breaks. And speaking of long career breaks, this is Mimi Kahn. She's a social worker in Orange County, California, who returned to work in a social services organization after a 25-year career break. That's the longest career break that I'm aware of. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor took a five-year career break early in her career.

And this is Tracy Shapiro, who took a 13-year career break. Tracy answered a call for essays by the Today Show from people who were trying to return to work but having a difficult time of it. Tracy wrote in that she was a mom of five who loved her time at home, but she had gone through a divorce and needed to return to work, plus she really wanted to bring work back into her life because she loved working. Tracy was doing what so many of us do when we feel like we've put in a good day in the job search. She was looking for a finance or accounting role, and she had just spent the last nine months very diligently researching companies online and applying for jobs with no results.

I met Tracy in June of 2011, when the Today Show asked me if I could work with her to see if I could help her turn things around. The first thing I told Tracy was she had to get out of the house. I told her she had to go public with her job search and tell everyone she knew about her interest in returning to work. I also told her, "You are going to have a lot of conversations that don't go anywhere. Expect that, and don't be discouraged by it. There will be a handful that ultimately lead to a job opportunity."

I'll tell you what happened with Tracy in a little bit, but I want to share with you a discovery that I made when I was returning to work after my own career break of 11 years out of the full-time workforce. And that is, that people's view of you is frozen in time. What I mean by this is, when you start to get in touch with people and you get back in touch with those people from the past, the people with whom you worked or went to school, they are going to remember you as you were before your career break. And that's even if your sense of self has diminished over time, as happens with so many of us the farther removed we are from our professional identities. So for example, you might think of yourself as someone who looks like this. This is me, crazy after a day of driving around in my minivan. Or here I am in the kitchen. But those people from the past, they don't know about any of this. They only remember you as you were, and it's a great confidence boost to be back in touch with these people and hear their enthusiasm about your interest in returning to work.

There's one more thing I remember vividly from my own career break. And that was that I hardly kept up with the business news. My background is in finance, and I hardly kept up with any news when I was home caring for my four young children. So I was afraid I'd go into an interview and start talking about a company that didn't exist anymore. So I had to resubscribe to the Wall Street Journal and read it for a good six months cover to cover before I felt like I had a handle on what was going on in the business world again.

I believe relaunchers are a gem of the workforce, and here's why. Think about our life stage: for those of us who took career breaks for childcare reasons, we have fewer or no maternity leaves. We did that already. We have fewer spousal or partner job relocations. We're in a more settled time of life. We have great work experience. We have a more mature perspective. We're not trying to find ourselves at an employer's expense. Plus we have an energy, an enthusiasm about returning to work precisely because we've been away from it for a while.

On the flip side, I speak with employers, and here are two concerns that employers have about hiring relaunchers.

The first one is, employers are worried that relaunchers are technologically obsolete. Now, I can tell you, having been technologically obsolete myself at one point, that it's a temporary condition. I had done my financial analysis so long ago that I used Lotus 1-2-3. I don't know if anyone can even remember back that far, but I had to relearn it on Excel. It actually wasn't that hard. A lot of the commands are the same. I found PowerPoint much more challenging, but now I use PowerPoint all the time. I tell relaunchers that employers expect them to come to the table with a working knowledge of basic office management software. And if they're not up to speed, then it's their responsibility to get there. And they do.

The second area of concern that employers have about relaunchers is they're worried that relaunchers don't know what they want to do. I tell relaunchers that they need to do the hard work to figure out whether their interests and skills have changed or have not changed while they have been on career break. That's not the employer's job. It's the relauncher's responsibility to demonstrate to the employer where they can add the most value.

Back in 2010 I started noticing something. I had been tracking return to work programs since 2008, and in 2010, I started noticing the use of a short-term paid work opportunity, whether it was called an internship or not, but an internship-like experience, as a way for professionals to return to work. I saw Goldman Sachs and Sara Lee start corporate reentry internship programs. I saw a returning engineer, a nontraditional reentry candidate, apply for an entry-level internship program in the military, and then get a permanent job afterward. I saw two universities integrate internships into mid-career executive education programs.

So I wrote a report about what I was seeing, and it became this article for Harvard Business Review called "The 40-Year-Old Intern." I have to thank the editors there for that title, and also for this artwork where you can see the 40-year-old intern in the midst of all the college interns. And then, courtesy of Fox Business News, they called the concept "The 50-Year-Old Intern."

(Laughter)

So five of the biggest financial services companies have reentry internship programs for returning finance professionals. And at this point, hundreds of people have participated. These internships are paid, and the people who move on to permanent roles are commanding competitive salaries. And now, seven of the biggest engineering companies are piloting reentry internship programs for returning engineers as part of an initiative with the Society of Women Engineers. Now, why are companies embracing the reentry internship? Because the internship allows the employer to base their hiring decision on an actual work sample instead of a series of interviews, and the employer does not have to make that permanent hiring decision until the internship period is over. This testing out period removes the perceived risk that some managers attach to hiring relaunchers, and they are attracting excellent candidates who are turning into great hires.

Think about how far we have come. Before this, most employers were not interested in engaging with relaunchers at all. But now, not only are programs being developed specifically with relaunchers in mind, but you can't even apply for these programs unless you have a gap on your résumé.

This is the mark of real change, of true institutional shift, because if we can solve this problem for relaunchers, we can solve it for other career transitioners too. In fact, an employer just told me that their veterans return to work program is based on their reentry internship program. And there's no reason why there can't be a retiree internship program. Different pool, same concept.

So let me tell you what happened with Tracy Shapiro. Remember that she had to tell everyone she knew about her interest in returning to work. Well, one critical conversation with another parent in her community led to a job offer for Tracy, and it was an accounting job in a finance department. But it was a temp job. The company told her there was a possibility it could turn into something more, but no guarantees. This was in the fall of 2011. Tracy loved this company, and she loved the people and the office was less than 10 minutes from her house. So even though she had a second job offer at another company for a permanent full-time role, she decided to take her chances with this internship and hope for the best. Well, she ended up blowing away all of their expectations, and the company not only made her a permanent offer at the beginning of 2012, but they made it even more interesting and challenging, because they knew what Tracy could handle.

Fast forward to 2015, Tracy's been promoted. They've paid for her to get her MBA at night. She's even hired another relauncher to work for her. Tracy's temp job was a tryout, just like an internship, and it ended up being a win for both Tracy and her employer.

Now, my goal is to bring the reentry internship concept to more and more employers. But in the meantime, if you are returning to work after a career break, don't hesitate to suggest an internship or an internship-like arrangement to an employer that does not have a formal reentry internship program. Be their first success story, and you can be the example for more relaunchers to come.

Thank you.

(Applause)