Utah’s return-to-work programs tap into homegrown talent to address workforce needs
Photo courtesy of Tech-Moms
Growing up in Roy, Utah, Shay Baker always dreamed of having a family—but that wasn’t her only dream. She was primed for adventure. Her parents listened to tribal music and Italian opera. Her grandfather took road trips to Mexico, returning with imported goods to sell on an Ogden street corner—an entrepreneurial venture that would become a long-running family business called Bev’s Imports. Baker planned to complete a degree, serve a religious mission, travel and work as a journalist. And she did.
When Baker gave birth to her first child, she still intended to have it all. She had climbed the career ladder, starting as an associate producer and finally landing her dream job as a TV news reporter. As a relatively new reporter, Baker was on call for breaking news, and her husband traveled a lot. “I noticed within two weeks of returning from maternity leave … like, this might not work,” she says.
Baker decided to leave the workforce to focus on her family, but it was complicated. “I knew that, as a woman in TV news, your days are somewhat limited,” she says. “I knew it wouldn’t be easy to get back in later when I was 40-plus years old, and I’d really invested a lot of time and energy.”
She spent her last day at work in tears. It felt like goodbye. “But I just put it behind me and went to work with the baby,” she says. “And it was great. I loved my career break.”
Baker spent the next eight years savoring the opportunity to be home with her babies (she has three now), serving her neighbors and volunteering in the community. She didn’t realize until recently that she—and other women like her—may be an answer to some of Utah’s most pressing problems.
Reducing talent imports
In 2023, U.S. News and World Report ranked Utah as the best state in the nation, including first-place ratings for both economy and fiscal stability. Unemployment is below 3 percent, and more companies are flocking here due to the state’s business-friendly practices. We cheer when corporate giants like Texas Instruments invest in Utah but whisper to each other, “What will this do to our housing market? Construction strain? Water supply? Air quality? Traffic?”
Utahns commonly post tongue-in-cheek comments on social media to discourage talent imports from other states. “Utah sucks. Don’t move here.” So, if we don’t want to import talent, how do we fill jobs at our growing businesses during this period of historically low unemployment?
“We could moderate some of this growth by leveraging homegrown talent that is already living in our state—already living in a home, already watering their lawns,” says Robbyn Scribner, co-founder of Tech-Moms. “We have a workforce here if we are willing to open our eyes and recognize the talent.”
Career breaks and return-to-work programs
Women in Utah often exit the workforce to care for young children, as Baker did. According to the Department of Workforce Services, about half of Utah mothers of children younger than six participate in the workforce compared to 74 percent of mothers whose children are in school. But child care is not the only catalyst for career breaks.
“There are lots of reasons people step off the career track and want to get back on,” says Michelle Suzuki, SVP and head of marketing at Instructure. She points to personal goals, like writing a book or returning to school; caregiving responsibilities, like caring for aging parents or loved ones with medical issues; or experiencing a health challenge of their own. As time passes or circumstances change, many want to re-enter the workforce.
Some companies recognize the potential in this untapped talent and try to ease transitions with return-to-work programs. A temporary return-to-work position gives workers on-the-job training in a specific aspect of the business. In a Harvard Business Review article, return-to-work expert Carol Fishman Cohen estimated that nearly 40 percent of the Fortune 50 companies have such programs. The Utah Women & Leadership Project found that 20 percent of Utah’s best employers have also created return-to-work initiatives.
“We need to get more people involved in the labor market,” says Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson. “Giving people an avenue to get back in has been something that I think is not only good for them and good for the businesses or the state agencies that are benefiting from them, but good for the economy.”
At Instructure, returners develop expertise in enterprise software like Marketo, Salesforce and Gainsight. “We bring in women who have left the workforce and give them insight and exposure into tech,” says Joanna Fankhauser, Instructure’s SVP of global business intelligence and operations. “We post the position like it’s an internship. Then we interview the candidates and select the one who is the most ready.”
At the end of the return-to-work program, many returners transition to permanent part-time or full-time roles within Instructure. Others use their new software proficiency to pursue opportunities outside the organization.
“We are a company that believes in employee development. We want our employees to succeed no matter where they are,” Suzuki says. “If we can smooth their career reentry, it’s just so fun to watch.”
Christina Noakes, marketing coordinator and returner at Instructure
Goldman Sachs has run a “returnship” program since 2008 but took the opportunity to redesign it following the pandemic. The new program is six months long and includes access to a full suite of benefits like 401(k) contribution and professional development. Compared to the original 10-week program, the six-month returnship gives returners additional mentorship, upskilling opportunities and time to determine whether the role is aligned with their career goals.
“It also allows people to expand a little bit beyond those tight boundaries of a specific team,” says Stacey Miller, co-chief operating officer for the Salt Lake City region at Goldman Sachs. “Maybe I came in the door through the comptroller’s function, but wow, I met someone who was a mentor and a sponsor as part of this program, and they’re actually in the asset wealth management group, and I’m really interested in that.”
Goldman Sachs’ program targets a senior level of returners, those with at least five years of work experience who have been out of the full-time workforce for two or more years. Kapil Sharma, VP of global mobility services at Goldman Sachs, says the average career break for their returners is 9.3 years. “There are a lot of senior people that we are able to hire through this program,” he says. “Not just banking jobs. One person’s returnship was on the human capital management team, and she did amazingly well in the group.”
Miller says that 80 percent of the returners who convert to full-time roles come in at the VP level. “We’re talking about talented professionals who bring a skill set that we view as a VP, leader or manager level when they come into the firm,” she says.
It was a return-to-work position like these that brought Baker back to the workforce. Her neighbor had recommended her for an opportunity at the Utah Department of Commerce, but she was conflicted. “I’d go through these periods of itching to get back to work,” she says. “Then, no, I love being home with my babies. And then, oh, my gosh, I want to be an adult again.”
In the end, the temporary nature of the role gave Baker peace of mind, along with the encouragement of her network. “What’s the big deal?” they asked her. “It’s 16 weeks. It’s a temporary role. If you hate it, you hate it, and then you know it’s not time. But what if you love it?”
Returning to the career track can pose logistical and emotional challenges, and when women choose to return to the workforce, many do so with a confidence deficit. Baker says just the idea of submitting a resume for a job had her pacing the floor, thinking, “I don’t know how to put my career break on here. Are they going to see it as a red flag? Are they going to judge me differently?”
Miller has seen this on the employer side as well. “People say they were so nervous [to return to work],” she says. “They didn’t know what to expect, and they thought that they had lost all their skills, and they wouldn’t fit in, and they wouldn’t be able to make a contribution. All of this self-doubt.”
The Utah Department of Commerce offered Baker a return-to-work position as a communications specialist for Return Utah. It could not have been a better role for her stage of life or state of mind.
According to its website, Return Utah is the first public return-to-work program in the United States. Launched in 2021 by Utah’s Cox-Henderson administration, the program facilitates public sector jobs for professionals who have taken a career break—people like Baker.
Henderson was inspired to start the Return Utah initiative while visiting a refugee center. She learned about their programs for training women and helping them enter the workforce so they could provide for their families.
“I had this ‘aha’ moment when I was there,” Henderson says. “I thought, we need to do this for the state, not just for my office. I took the idea to the governor, and he loved it.”
Return Utah prepares returners for the workforce, providing career development workshops on resume writing, interviewing, job seeking and LinkedIn presence. This transition support is critical to combating the imposter syndrome common in returners. “It’s not a placement program,” Henderson says. “It’s really a training program, but it has led to almost 100 percent placement.”
So far, 40 participants have completed the Return Utah program, with some working in Henderson’s own office. She is eager to see the program expand. “I would love more people to apply and take us up on this offer,” Henderson says. “We have found incredible people. It is mutually beneficial.”
Tech-Moms is another organization that helps Utah women transition back to work. This nonprofit finds flexible career opportunities and re-entry roles in tech for its participants, focusing on three program pillars: career exploration, a supportive community and technical training. The nine-week course includes an introduction to web development and education around the psychological aspects of career re-entry, including building confidence and preparing the returners’ families for career relaunch. “Then we just keep connecting them with companies,” Scribner says. “At Tech-Moms, we say, ‘We’re not doing career transitions. We are doing life transformations.’”
Over 300 women have completed the Tech-Moms program since 2020—40 percent of whom are single mothers and 36 percent of whom are women of color, according to the Tech-Moms annual report.
"We could moderate some of this growth by leveraging homegrown talent that is already living in our state—already living in a home, already watering their lawns. We have a workforce here if we are willing to open our eyes and recognize the talent."
Photo courtesy of Tech-Moms
The impact of return-to-work programs
Companies who have invested in return-to-work programs see tremendous rewards, describing returners as “hungry,” “mature,” “highly educated” and “spectacular.” The time spent training and onboarding, they say, is a small sacrifice to make.
“Instructure has benefitted from this incredible talent,” Fankhauser says. “We have never been questioned on the ROI. A lot of our executives see the value.”
Heleena Sideris of Park City Lodging points to a returner on her team as an example. “I think people who re-enter the workforce have a different value system about why they’re showing up to work—something beyond a simple paycheck,” she says, adding that this returner has stayed with the team for five years. In a high-turnover industry like hospitality, this is remarkable. “Someone who just cares about the company, who cares about her co-workers and the staff … To have someone come in who has a completely different way of processing the world and [who can] help us become more efficient and think about things in smarter ways—it’s just invaluable.”
Returners with life experience and street smarts are helpful at Goldman Sachs, which hires 200-300 junior employees to their Salt Lake City campus each July. “We need a mature, professional group of people to wrap their arms around [the junior employees] and make them feel welcome and help coach them and mentor them in professional business acumen—skills that aren’t taught in college,” Miller says. “If you’re managing a household or you’re managing a nonprofit or you’re managing all of these other things—while you may have stepped out of the professional workforce, those skills are all very tangible and useful here at Goldman Sachs.”
While over 70 percent of Return Utah’s participants left the workforce to care for their families, the program helps returners of all types. One of Return Utah’s first participants, Tad Greener, joined the pilot program at age 63 after fighting a chronic illness. Greener had 35 years of experience in public utilities and energy but could not find a job. “Return Utah has not only been beneficial for people who’ve taken a career break, but when you stack on ageism, it’s been highly beneficial,” Baker says.
Return Utah placed Greener with the Utah Office of Energy Development, where he ended up writing a grant proposal, sending it off to the federal government and scoring $150 million for Utah.
Evaluations show that 100 percent of Return Utah participants claim an increase in confidence, feel more prepared to enter the workforce, say they have expanded their skillset and feel they have built a long-term professional network through their return-to-work experience.
Baker’s own evaluation of the program was similar. She credits her return-to-work experience with a personal transformation—expanding her comfort zone, rekindling her ambition to grow and providing a confidence boost. When the temporary role concluded, Return Utah asked her to manage the entire program. She now spends her days watching other returners go through the same process she did, which she finds especially rewarding.
Sharma also enjoys seeing the transformation in Goldman Sachs’ returners. He pulls up a running feedback file, flipping through each submission proudly. “This one is a special one,” he says with a smile. “It says, ‘The returnship program gave my entire family the grace we needed for me to re-establish myself in the corporate world.’ And here’s another one: ‘My returnship was such a good fit that I got up to speed and provided value to my team quickly once I joined Goldman Sachs.’ One more, which I really love: ‘I was promoted to VP nine months after the returnship program. That is a very unlikely experience if I had re-entered the workforce without the support of this program.’”
These transformations have far-reaching effects. When you change the life of a woman, Scribner points out, you change the lives of generations. “Our [Tech-Moms] are learning how to code, and then they teach their daughters and sons how to code,” she continues. “So we have children that will not be living lives in poverty. That’s good for everybody, right?”
Companies that want to implement return-to-work programs may be intimidated by the prospect, but Scribner says there is no reason to reinvent the wheel. Tech-Moms helps some companies build their programs, modeling them after student internships. “You’re already bringing in college interns,” she says. “Bring in some adult women, too. You’ll be astonished at how much value they bring to your organization, and you’re never going to want to let them go.”
The state of Utah provides assistance for companies that create return-to-work positions through the Return-to-Work Grant program. “We’re trying to help private industry get more interested in this idea,” Baker says. “If you’re a small company and want to start a [return-to-work program], you can apply for funds, and they’ll help you.”
Scribner estimates that companies will use the return-to-work model for another 20 years, but she sees the need tapering as the cost of living increases and fewer women are able to take career breaks. Her forecast for the next female-friendly policy? Part-time professional work.
“Our daughters are going to demand it, and our companies need it,” she says. That’s her next project—as soon as Utah’s return-to-work situation is running smoothly.
The 3rd cohort of Return Utah Participants celebrate the completion of their returnships with Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson, August 2022
Left to Right: Joseph Henderson, Judd Cool, Mikyung Oepping, Amanda Turner, Wendy Bradrick, Carina Olsen, Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson, Jayne Gubler, Nanette Grow, Jyotsna Kalakoti, and Shay Baker