A Different Kind of Work Return

Companies are trying to fill open positions through “returnships” and coaxing people out of retirement. But will it be enough to solve the labor shortage?

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

It’s one of the most famous quotes from The Godfather (Part III, to be exact), but it’s also an apt way to describe some organizations’ latest push to solve the labor shortage. With job vacancies still surging and companies struggling to find enough full-time workers to meet demand, they are turning to “returnships”—paid, three- to six-month positions that offer on-the-job training for mid-career professionals who have been out of the workforce for two years or more—and “unretirements” as a way to fill the void.

Linda Hyman, Korn Ferry’s executive vice president of global human resources, says limited-engagement opportunities like these can help companies fill hiring gaps and create opportunities for people who want to work but don’t want to commit to something long-term with the pandemic still prevalent. “Experienced talent is out there and companies need it, so why not try it?” says Hyman of efforts to coax people back into the labor force.

Experts say that in addition to promoting returnships, companies are starting to try coaxing recently retired people back to work as well. They are pitching them on emeritus-type assignments, coming out of retirement for a few months to help build a client relationship, for instance, or to leverage their expertise to work on a project on a temporary basis.

Nathan Blain, global leader for optimizing people costs at Korn Ferry, says he expects to see companies get a lot more creative when it comes to hiring. Part of the reason for that is because nothing they’ve done so far has made a real dent in the labor shortage. Companies across industries have offered signing bonuses, waived education requirements, provided flexible scheduling, and even allowed candidates to work from anywhere, all in a bid to attract more workers. They’ve converted contract workers to full-time positions and hired more part-time and freelance workers.

Yet, despite unemployment claims falling to a pandemic-era low of 360,000 last week, there are currently still more than 9 million job openings in the United States. Blain says returnships and unretirements are basically efforts to appeal to specific worker segments. “Companies are definitely trying to come up with more tailored, personalized job offerings,” he says.

For their part, companies that are promoting returnships say it isn’t about the labor shortage at all. They say it is more about offering the millions of women and older workers who had to leave their jobs because of the pandemic a path back into the workforce by providing them with the skills and training lost during their absence. For one thing, there’s no guarantee that people who complete a returnship will be offered a full-time position at the company. Moreover, many of the companies promoting returnships are in industries like banking, technology, and healthcare, which were struggling to find properly skilled people even before the pandemic, particularly among underrepresented groups. To be sure, as Blain notes, while historically women were the most likely to have employment gaps on their resumes, the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Asian, Black, and Latino workers could make returnships a viable stepping-stone to a full-time opportunity.

Not unlike with regular jobs, the challenge with returnships and unretirements is that companies aren’t just competing against other companies for people anymore. They are competing with raising a family, taking care of an elderly parent, leisure time, and new attitudes about what’s important in life. “Can these programs offer benefits, meaning, and freedom?” asks Hyman. “Because that’s what people want.”