Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Women who took extended time off from work to raise a family often assume their careers have hit a dead end. But in a tight job market, many companies are rolling out the red carpet to bring back that kind of experienced talent.

Why it matters: Career reentry programs — sometimes called "returnships" — give employers an opportunity to repopulate the ranks with high-caliber mid- to senior-level women. And they provide women who've been out of the workforce a chance to get back on the career path.

The big picture: About 2.2 million non-working mothers between 25 and 54 years old with bachelor's degrees or higher say they want to work, according to career reentry consultant Carol Fishman Cohen, co-founder of iRelaunch.

By the numbers: At the same time, there's a large talent gap to fill, especially in technical fields like engineering and computer science.

  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a shortage of more than 500,000 engineers between 2014 and 2024, for example.
  • Women represent just 14% of all engineers, according to the Society of Women Engineers, which launched the STEM Reentry Task Force with iRelaunch in 2015.
  • Between 54,000 and 216,000 women with engineering or computer science degrees are on career breaks at any time, according to SWE.

What's happening: More than 100 of the world's largest companies offer some type of return-to-work initiative.

  • The trend started in the financial services sector, first at Lehman Brothers and then at Goldman Sachs, which in 2008 coined — and trademarked — the term "returnship" for its 10-week program for women (and men) with career gaps looking to rejoin the workforce.
  • Since then, the concept has spread to other professions like law, IT, engineering and manufacturing.
  • General Motors, Ford, United Technologies and others have launched their own return-to-work programs.

How it works: A returnship for mid-career professionals is not much different from an entry-level internship.

  • Participants get training and mentoring support, and are paid the going rate for someone employed full-time in their position.
  • Open to men and women who have taken a career break of at least two years, the programs generally last from eight weeks to six months.
  • During that time, participants refresh their skills, while employers evaluate them for full-time jobs.
  • About 85% of participants have been hired into permanent jobs, says Cohen, whose firm helps companies develop return-to-work programs and also runs conferences on career reentry.
  • Cohen says her company has worked with 80,000 career relaunchers since 2007, including 400 who were hired more recently through the STEM Reentry Task Force.

General Motors' Take 2 program, launched in 2016, was one of the first STEM programs.

  • Originally focused on engineering jobs, GM later opened up the program for IT and finance professionals.
  • With 15 years' experience at an auto supplier, Kristen Siepker took a 10-year break to raise three kids. She joined GM in 2017 for a 12-week Take 2 internship. At the end, she was offered a full-time job, and within five months, she earned a promotion. She's now a finance manager in GM's fleet organization.

The bottom line: GM CEO Mary Barra broke barriers in 2014 as the only woman to lead a global automaker, but the industry as a whole remains a boys’ club, reports USA Today.

  • Encouraging women to resume their careers after a break is one way to boost that diversity and establish role models for future working mothers.

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