Facing a Critical Talent Gap? Try a Returnship!

At SAP SuccessFactors, we not only preach the virtues of implementing solutions to support diversity and inclusion in the workplace ‒ we also practice it.

In September 2018, SAP joined with Path Forward, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to empower experienced professionals to restart their careers after time spent away to focus on caregiving. They do this by providing a platform for people to apply for “returnship” opportunities with various companies. Returnships are paid, midcareer internships specifically designed for women and men who have taken a career pause to focus on family, such as being a caregiver to a parent or child.

Ninety-three percent of women taking a career break say they want to return but only 74 percent manage to do so, with only 40 percent returning full time.* This is an amazing pool of experienced talent that can collectively work with the ever-growing millennial population in the workplace.

When Amy Wilson, head of product at SAP SuccessFactors, asked me to take part in the program, I hesitated at first due to my workload. But as I reflect on my participation, I am grateful for the opportunity to make a difference.

Here is my story as a manager of a “returnee,” who for the sake of preserving privacy, I will refer to as Sarah.

Our team needed a utility player to support different marketing communications projects, and Sarah’s prior experience in project management, copy writing, and marketing events — albeit over seven years old — touched on the areas where we needed support. This made it easy for us to narrow in on her during the recruitment process.

I attended a series of coaching meetings with Path Forward where I gained invaluable information covering onboarding and learning and development.

Path Forward shared some great qualities that returning caregivers can bring to the workplace:

  • Stress management and flexibility
  • Navigating uncertainty
  • Self-motivation
  • Agility
  • Empathy
  • Communication
  • Big picture viewpoint
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Sense of humor
  • Trust and integrity

Based on my observations while managing Sarah, I have some comments on a few notable traits.

  • Navigating Uncertainty: Experienced caregivers, who sometimes must handle potentially devastating situations, can truly relate to this. It makes navigating the labyrinth of departments and teams at SAP seem like a cakewalk! Too often new hires are sent on an “Easter egg hunt” to find the rightful owner of a specific area. Sarah conducted these hunts with grace, leaving no stone unturned to complete her projects.
  • Self-Motivation: This trait is a manager’s dream. Let’s be honest – we have zero time to micromanage anyone. Our team is globally distributed, so it was very important for Sarah to work independently but continue to be motivated. Informal check-ins with her via Skype and email continually reassured me she was progressing on projects and taking time to develop skills that needed updating after her seven-year hiatus.
  • Emotional Intelligence: The ability to understand and manage emotions can greatly impact success. Thinking about the feelings of others, pausing before reacting, and showing empathy are practiced daily by caregivers and are much desired in the workplace – especially in positions that require interfacing with customers or working on projects with matrix teams.

For the returnship program to be a success for my team as well as for Sarah, I implemented a few actions pre- and post-onboarding:

  • I communicated Sarah’s skill set and availability to the extended team. This set expectations for the greater team and helped produce a comprehensive list of projects for her to work on.
  • I appointed a “buddy.” Like any new hire, having a go-to person to help Sarah navigate the organization from day one was very effective.
  • I held bi-weekly, one-on-one check-ins. Similar to how I manage the rest of my group, it was important to have a regular cadence of one-on-ones with Sarah. We typically reviewed projects that were in progress and discussed any possible road blocks that could occur due to the need for updated skills or access to information.
  • I created a learning and development plan. With the seven-year hiatus from the workforce in mind, we identified some skills and training that needed updating. Through our learning management system, I was able to assign courses to Sarah to complete during her tenure with us.

As I look back at this inaugural collaboration with Path Forward and our time with Sarah, I am proud of my team for dedicating time in their busy days to help make the returnship experience positive for Sarah. I’m also proud of SAP for sponsoring this important program.

SAP SuccessFactors is pleased to join forces with Path Forward and is currently offering returnships to people returning to the workforce.

Path Forward is part of Learning for Life – a global initiative that signals SAP’s commitment to building an inclusive, skilled workforce to power the digital enterprise. With a portfolio of more than 30 digital literacy programs, Learning for Life opens opportunities and changes people’s lives by ensuring everyone – regardless of age or background – has the relevant skills to thrive, innovate, and secure meaningful work in a digital world.

Eva Woo is global vice president of Solution Management – Initiatives and Industries.


*“Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success”, Hewlett, Sylvia Ann and Luce, Carolyn Buck; Harvard Business Review, March 2005. “How to Get Back to Work After Caring for a Family,” Koenig, Rebecca; US News and World Report, Feb 21, 2018