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The labor pool you could be tapping right now

August 25, 2021, 4:39 PM UTC
Remember the people who jumped off the hamster wheel to care for children or aging parents? Give them a call.
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Before we get to this week’s column, a housekeeping note: It’s my last one. I am so grateful to the folks at Fortune for giving me this platform as I transitioned from media executive to entrepreneur. I can now let you in on two secrets of Worksheet: One, I used it to answer burning questions I had as a first-time CEO navigating an ever-shifting world and workplace. Two, I ran an experiment to ensure every single edition featured the voices of women and people of color. Proud to say it worked and no white man ever shined alone. Now I hand the baton to a longtime friend and former colleague, Emily Peck. She’s fabulous, you’ll see. If you’d like to continue to connect, I’m scarily easy to find on the internet. Follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn, and please oh please follow what we’re building at Epicenter-NYC and URL Media.


Nandhini Gunalan’s return to work comes after 13 years away. She was just hired by Audible as a senior quality-assurance engineer, part of a program launched by the online audiobook and podcast producer to help those who took breaks in their career, usually for caregiving, resume employment. 

In Gunalan’s case, it wasn’t for a lack of trying to stay tethered to a workplace. But after she had her first baby, she wanted to work part time and her visa would only allow for full-time employment. Then came a second child. A master’s in computer science last year. She had planned to return to work when her second child began full-day schooling… in 2020. She hadn’t planned on a pandemic. Still, even in a job market that favors applicants, she says she struggled to find a job without current work experience. 

“Though many companies talk about inclusion and diversity,” Gunalan says, “if there is a gap, they won’t even get you to the interview stage.”

But now it’s 2021. There are more jobs than people willing to take them. We’re (still) in the middle of a pandemic and employers care less about where or when you work. They just need workers

Indeed, Audible’s program came about after a brainstorming session on nontraditional avenues to recruit. “We had been looking to grow the tech team and really hire top talent,” said Audible chief technology officer Tim Martin. “It’s a sign of how aggressive you need to be right now. We asked, ‘Are there obvious places we’re not looking?’”

That was October. By February, Audible’s Next Chapter Returnship program launched. Martin says the program attracted a lot of internal buzz as workers rattled off countless people they knew who had taken breaks in their career and might be perfect candidates. After the 20-week training period, offers were extended to nine members of the inaugural cohort of 11 people. One lesson, he said, was to not necessarily treat returnees the same as everyone else. Usually, “the candidate thinks on their feet,” he said. “So as we were interviewing, we were treating them as typical candidates just taking jobs. But some of these candidates were shutting down due to a lack of confidence and we saw it as a lack of interview success.” Martin said managers recalibrated to set the trainees up better and lean into the skills they clearly already had. He said the 20 weeks are geared toward boosting confidence, helping the workers get over “impostor syndrome” and ensuring the basic fundamentals of their tech skills are enough. 

When Gunalan was informed she had a job offer, she was relieved but also proud of herself. “When they said great things about me, I knew I was back,” said the New Jersey mother of two girls, ages 13 and 8. “The returnship program respects decisions that I’ve made. You can take a break and raise a family.”

Audible plans to repeat the program, emboldened by the success of the inaugural cohort, Martins says, “it’s three times as big.”

I asked two experts for their take on the idea of “returnships” given how tight the labor market is right now. On the candidate side, here’s some advice from Lori Mihalich-Levin, the founder of ​​Mindful Return, a program for parents transitioning back to work, and author of “Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave.” She encourages job seekers and returnees to think of the skills they gained as caregivers: 

“I truly believe that caregiving—and parenthood in particular—hones leadership skills that are extremely useful in any workplace.  From empathy, to prioritization, to rolling with the unexpected, to being able to meet the needs of clients who can’t articulate them very well, caregivers refine these skills day in and day out.  These are strengths caregivers should be sure to emphasize as they apply for jobs and re-enter the workforce.”

And on what employers need to remember if they try the returnship, I asked Rita Kakati-Shah, founder of Uma, a platform for women and people of color to build their confidence and leadership. She reminds employers to stay flexible with their new recruits: 

“So far all programs around the world that do this only bring people back to a full-time position, which defeats the purpose of flexibility and either leads the returners back onto the hamster wheel of seeking a non-existent work life balance, or they quit roughly between 18 months to two years later,” she said. “The pandemic actually did employees a favor in that they forced companies to create flexible working conditions. Only time will tell if these now hybrid models will stay that way or revert to in-office inflexible working hours only, where employees will inevitably feel shackled and burnt out again.”

Visit Fortune’SmarterWorking Hub presented by Future Forum by Slack. And read more here:

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