Returning to work need not be a nightmare

For women who have put their careers on hold to have a baby, spend more time with their children or care for ageing parents, returning to the workforce presents serious challenges. 

How do they get up to speed with new technology without looking like a Luddite, or learn about changes in the marketplace without seeming out of touch? And how do they know if they are truly able to balance their responsibilities at home with their obligations at the office?

Goldman Sachs is trying to help women answer some of these questions. For the past three years, the US investment bank has offered a programme that gives women the chance to wade back into the workforce and sharpen their skills.

Participants in the Goldman Sachs Returnship Program – a play on the idea of an internship for experienced employees returning to work – spend 10 weeks working on specific projects for a division such as operations, finance, compliance, research, human resources or investment management. They attend talks by executives on market trends, participate in workshops on career and professional development, and enrol in mini-courses on software such as Outlook, Excel and PowerPoint.

The programme is an extension of Goldman’s New Directions conference, a one-day event held twice a year that provides career coaching and guidance to workers returning after a long absence. Many of the women who took part in the conference still found it difficult to find full-time positions in the industry, says Mónica Márquez, vice-president in the office of global leadership and diversity.

“We came across risk-averse managers who were not willing to take the leap of faith on someone who had been out the workforce for an extended period,” she says.

So, in 2008, Goldman launched a pilot Returnship programme in New York with 11 people. Last year, 38 people participated. (Nearly all the applicants are female, according to Márquez.) Since then, the programme has been offered in Hong Kong and Singapore, and there is a possibility it might be launched in London.

Helping talented women return to work is the ultimate goal of the programme, says Márquez, but Goldman is not necessarily running it for purely altruistic reasons – the bank has hired nearly 50 per cent of participants in full-time roles.

“There is a war for talent,” she says. “And we believe that individuals who are returning to the workforce are a hidden talent pool. They are misconceived by some managers who think they’re not as committed to their careers because they were willing to leave them. But we find these women are even more committed and more ambitious, as their time away has given them a renewed purpose.”

Still, not everyone who participates rejoins the workforce.

“Some women realise they’re not quite ready for full-time work … It puts a smile on my face when I hear from alumni of the programme who landed elsewhere, or in a part-time job that better suits their work/life balance. It’s win-win for us and them. We want to make sure they land in a place that’s right for them,” says Márquez.

“We realise not everyone who participates in our programme will end up at Goldman Sachs. Although we are finding great talent, we understand not everyone is a good fit for this industry, and that’s OK.”

Goldman Sachs is accepting applications for this year’s Returnship programme, which begins in September in New York

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Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.