Returnship programme helps women, and men too, ease back into work after career break

A handful of corporations in the UAE are now offering women (and men) returnships – paid, short-term contracts that offer those that have taken long career breaks a bridge back into a senior role.

Zeina Chakhtoura, joined the Return to Career programme offered by GE before eventually landing a job at the company. Reem Mohammed / The National
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After a year of unsuccessful job hunting, Zeina Chakhtoura received a call asking whether she would be interested in applying for the new Return to Career programme offered by GE. The global infrastructure and technology company was planning to pilot the initiative in the UAE and Ms Chakhtoura jumped at the chance.

Originally from Lebanon, the UAE resident of nine years has a degree in aerospace engineering, an MBA and more than eight years’ corporate experience in the aerospace industry, latterly as senior analyst at Mubadula Development Company.

But after a four-year career break to focus on her family – she has two young children – the 35-year-old was struggling to find a way back into the workforce in a role that fit her qualifications and experience.

“After taking a career break, you’re not very employable,” she says, “Especially for someone like me whose background is very specific.”

Goldman Sachs invented the concept of the returnship in 2008 and has since trademarked the term. Returnships are paid, short-term employment contracts that provide women that have taken an extended, voluntary career break a bridge back to a senior role. Returnships are often also open to men in the same position. The concept is well established in the US and the UK, but less so in the Middle East.

In the UAE, Virgin Megastore Middle East is one of a handful of companies, apart from GE, that offers returnships.

For Ms Chakhtoura, after receiving the call she applied for the 10-week programme via LinkedIn and was one of eight woman chosen to participate. She was given a specific, time-bound task within GE’s oil and gas division.

Throughout the programme’s duration, Ms Chakhtoura and the other women had regular meetings with human resources staff and were assigned mentors.

GE does not guarantee a full-time position at the end of the returnship but Ms Chaktoura was one of the four women later hired. She now works in the aerospace division, which was her goal from the outset.

At Virgin Megastore Middle East, Nisreen Shocair, the president, established a returnship programme two years ago as a way to retain mid- to senior-level women in the workforce. So far, there have been four participants.

These women typically have good degrees, have worked hard to succeed and have left right at the time they were seeing progress in their careers.

“We try so hard to keep women in business,” Ms Shocair says. “Being a working mother does not come without a high cost – particularly for women who want to be there for a child’s every milestone. Returnships allow women [and men] to come back to work without setbacks and the loss of opportunities after they made a beautiful and completely natural life choice.”

Virgin Megastore’s returnship programme is structured differently from GE’s.

The returnee is taken on for six months and initially rotates between departments – buying, operations or shop floor, for example – to identify where her skills fit best. She is also coached and mentored.

Ms Shocair says that although the returnship lasts six months, it takes about three months for returnees to get their confidence back.

Crucially, the aim is to offer a full-time position at the end of the returnship.

“The idea of training for six months, and then being back home again looking for a job could be unproductive,” Ms Shocair says.

All four of Virgin Megastore Mena’s returnees remain with the company.

Ms Shocair recognises that mothers have extra skills and insights that other employees may not have. They are generally excellent multitaskers and often have ideas that benefit the business, she says.

But returnships are not without their detractors – some say that the pay is often inadequate and the “returnship” label detracts from professional prowess.

GE and Virgin Megastore say their returnships have been successful.

“The outcome was beyond our expectations,” says Rania El Khouly, GE’s organisation and talent development senior director for Mena and Turkey. “For us it’s a triple win. We had eight phenomenal participants, four exceptional hires and we are planning to expand the returnship scheme to new countries.”

GE launched the programme in Turkey at the start of April and in Egypt at the start of May. There will be a second UAE intake in September of this year along with pilots in Saudi Arabia and Algeria. “I hope more companies are encouraged to do something like this,” Ms Chakhtoura says.

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