Exclusive: Amazon will bring up to 1,000 women back to the workforce in the biggest ever public commitment to ‘returnships’

June 3, 2021, 1:00 PM UTC

Nearly 2 million women have dropped out of the U.S. labor force since the pandemic began. Now the country’s second-largest company wants to hire up to 1,000 of them back.

Amazon on Thursday will announce a major expansion of its “returnship” program, which recruits and provides paid job training to candidates who have left the workforce for a year or more—usually meaning women who stopped working to take care of young children or other relatives. Big tech and finance companies have offered returnships for more than a decade, on a limited basis; Amazon started piloting them in 2019, and has since hired more than 30 corporate employees who have gone through its paid return-to-work training.

But now—after a year in which the pandemic closed schools and day-care centers, and decimated industries that rely on majority-female workforces—Amazon is making what one expert calls the largest ever commitment to returnships by a single employer. The e-commerce giant will hire up to 1,000 people to go through its paid return-to-work training “in the next several years”—and its executives are calling on other Fortune 500 companies to follow suit.

“It should become more standard for employers that are in a position like Amazon’s to offer returnships,” says Alex Mooney, senior diversity talent acquisition program manager at Amazon. “Women are the primary caretakers in our society, and this program will be predominantly for them.”

He declined to be more specific about Amazon’s deadline for making its 1,000 hires, or about how many returnship graduates the company expects to hire each year. Even with those caveats, Amazon is now creating “a much bigger program than anything we’ve seen,” says Tami Forman, executive director of the nonprofit Path Forward, which is working with Amazon on its returnships.

Forman’s organization also works with about 90 other companies, including Walmart, Facebook, Apple, and Comcast. Thousands of women have expressed interest in returnships through Path Forward, Forman told me in February, and about 80% of the women who go through them are hired into full-time positions. Yet all of those Path Forward–affiliated employers together have only offered returnships to about 600 people since 2016.

“I am 100% thrilled by what Amazon is doing—and I think it shows companies that there is a pathway to piloting a program and expanding it,” says Forman. “They’re setting a bar for big companies to do more.”

While a big increase from its previous returnship commitments, 1,000 people are a drop in the bucket for Amazon’s pandemic-juiced workforce of almost 1.3 million. But Mooney says that Amazon is “trying to methodically grow the program without overcommitting and under-delivering,” focusing on departments where “we have the structure internally to offer a really meaningful ramp back to someone’s career.”

Amazon’s returnships run for 16 weeks, are entirely remote, and are currently offered in departments including operations finance, consumer payments, Amazon Pay, and search—with more planned. The company will provide equipment, set a specific project for the participant, and provide her with dedicated mentors as well as a regular check-in schedule with her supervisor.

“There’s a granular level of support that the program has provided me with. It constantly has set me up for success,” says Zeinab Yassin, a Seattle-based finance professional who stopped working in 2018, when her second child was born with health problems. She’s now halfway through a returnship program in Amazon’s finance department.

Prospective returnship candidates can apply directly through Amazon or find the program through other partners, including Path Forward. But Mooney says that Amazon’s recruiters are also proactively seeking returnship candidates, including through LinkedIn (which, as I reported in March, recently changed its platform to allow stay-at-home parents to more clearly reflect employment gaps on their public résumés).

Returnships are open to all genders, although Mooney says that practically more than 93% of Amazon’s current participants are women. And while the pandemic has had the worst economic impact on women of color, Mooney would not provide racial data on Amazon’s returnship participants, or discuss how the program would affect the company’s workforce diversity beyond “benefiting women.” (Amazon is also facing a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in hiring corporate employees; a company spokesperson says that “these allegations do not reflect our values. We don’t tolerate any kind of discrimination or harassment in the workplace.”)

But for Forman, Amazon’s announcement might have the greatest impact outside Amazon.

“As a society, the way we’re going to get to scale with these [returnship] programs is more companies doing them,” she says. “There should be hundreds and thousands of companies running these programs. And, certainly for the largest companies in America, there’s no excuse left.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that companies offered returnships to about 600 people, rather than hiring about 600 returnship graduates. 

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