How Schneider Electric’s ‘returnship’ aims to support women at work

Over the past few years, a handful of companies have leaned into “returnships” or return-to-work programs. Most notably, Microsoft, IBM, Accenture and Goldman Sachs have used such offerings to reintroduce talent to the labor force after a hiatus. Among those companies offering mid-career internships is Schneider Electric Global. 

At the start of February, the company launched its inaugural U.S. returnship. Eight women — all of whom had been out of the workforce for the better part of a decade, or longer — embarked on their journey of product management, software engineering and purchasing. Six months from now, they’ll generally have the choice to move on from Schneider or stay. The goal is to create a “safe group” of people, who have similar experiences and share the mission of slowly returning to corporate life. 

“We’re going to work with them to decide if Schneider is the right company for them. We would hire them full-time,” Amy deCastro, vice president of HR for global businesses at Schneider Electric, told HR Dive. “If not, we’ve now invested in them and given them the skills that they need — if and when and where they would want to re-enter the workforce.” 

Household, caregiving duties overshadow women’s careers

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While the program is open to people of all genders, candidates for this cohort ended up being largely women. DeCastro attributed this largely to the trickle of women out of the workforce amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

This all folds into Schneider’s overarching attitude toward caregivers, especially women who take on “the second shift” of caring for the home and dependents. As a 2021 analysis in McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace report indicated, mothers (in dual career couples with fathers) are more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for housework and caregiving during the pandemic. Additionally, mothers are one and a half times more likely to be spending three hours or more on these duties. The toll of the pandemic, feeling unheard and unseen at work, and the second shift is even more dire for Black women.

“I read the same thing my peers do about 1.6 million females leaving the workforce,” deCastro said. (The recent McKinsey analysis said “as many as two million women are considering leaving the workforce” due to COVID-19-related challenges.) Schneider hasn’t experienced a “mass exodus,” but has still seen turnover. To combat this, the company’s HR leg has built on pre-pandemic foundations for women’s retention, she said.

HR solutions include thorough benefits packages

To mitigate those challenges, Schneider’s salaried U.S. employees have access to Care.com. Along with pet care, the benefit aims to lighten the load with child and adult care. 

DeCastro said the benefit has already proven useful: One employee who needed a back-up plan for a closed pre-school was able to find a local babysitter that day. Another was struggling with a fruitless nursing home search because COVID-19 had slowed the acceptance of new patients to facilities. DeCastro and her team told the employee to take the time they needed — in this case, two weeks — to figure out home accommodations for their mother. Flexibility is a priority close to deCastro’s heart, she said, as she’s a part of what she refers to as the “sandwich generation.” 

“I’m not only a parent. I’m a teacher, because my kids are home, and my aging parents are here… We have flexibility,” she added, saying that she volunteered to take part-time hours last summer. “I had to do that because I had a teenage son who needed to find a college to go to — and because all the college campuses were closed during COVID.” She explained that co-workers took time off for similar reasons or to help their children with remote learning.

Flexibility for Schneider’s hourly, front-line manufacturing workers is “handled ad hoc” at the factory level, deCastro said.

“What they could tell us is, ‘I need to be in the factory from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. instead of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., in order to drop my children off at school.’ We make those adjustments,” she said. “There’s such a demand for our manufacturing workers right now — especially with all of the supply chain issues — that it was just a little bit more challenging.”

Tips for creating a returnship program

Schneider used two key methods to spread the word about its program. One was to be vocal at an opportune time: Aamir Paul, country president, U.S. for Schneider, highlighted the company at the Society of Women Engineers Conference last October in Indianapolis. The second tactic was to outsource. While she said she typically wants to be “vendor-agnostic,” deCastro did credit reacHIRE and its network, along with its female talent platform Aurora, as a great help.

DeCastro’s advice to HR pros is to stoke conversations around their employer “being that company that will open [its] doors to someone who doesn’t necessarily have all the bullets on a job description.” At the end of the day, deCastro is interested in creating a safe space for this year’s cohorts, she said, and anyone who joins Schneider’s returnship program.

“We’re pulling them back in and making them part of this candidate pool that may not have otherwise felt the confidence or support to rejoin the corporate world,” she said

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