Balancing a career with the demands of family life is a consistent challenge for women. Pew Research has found that women disproportionately bear the costs in terms of career advancement and work-life balance. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these trends.
When the pandemic hit, it created more of chasm between working women and their careers, as many found themselves also filling the roles of remote teacher and office manager in their own homes. The most recent annual Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey and LeanIn.org found that 1 in 3 women considered downshifting their careers last year or leaving the workforce altogether because of the increased burden on themselves and their families.
T-Mobile’s TechX Returnship, a six-month, full-time, paid return-to-work program, launched in the fall of 2019 to help people update their skills and work experience after an absence from the workforce. “In 2019, the TechX Returnship started off as a field test to do better with an understanding of the value diversity and women in technology bring to the business,” Joanne de Guzman, senior technology program manager for the TechX Returnship, told TriplePundit. “Over the course of two years, it’s been a privilege to be part of making that concept into a reality and observing the direct impact that has spanned across technology.”
T-Mobile has transitioned 81 percent of Returnship participants into full-time roles at the company since the pilot program launched, de Guzman said. When COVID-19 hit and people were forced out of their jobs due to layoffs and shifting priorities at home, this work suddenly became all the more relevant. de Guzman and her team looked to tailor the program to meet these challenges head on — including “opening up remote and hybrid opportunities so people who may not be able to afford living in high cost living cities, like Seattle, could contribute to T-Mobile,” she told us.
The latest cohort in particular emphasizes helping working mothers and others displaced by the pandemic. The cohort is 78 percent women and 74 percent people of color, with an average of 12 years of work experience and six years of a career break. “This speaks to the level of commitment from our leaders and advocates, who value this hidden talent pool of workers who are skillful and ready to contribute to the workforce,” de Guzman said. “Every time I talk about this, it gives me goosebumps.”
There are myriad reasons why a person leaves the workforce. Valerie Chyong-Tzyy Huang, one of the most recent “Returners” in T-Mobile’s program, took a leave of absence to raise her family — leaving a successful telecommunications career behind. With her children now in middle school, she says she’s ready to return to work, put her education and skills to use, and be a role model for her 13-year old daughter and other young women.
She soon learned returning to the workforce after an absence is not just about skills, but also about the mindset that creeps in during time away. “I never thought anyone would employ me,” Huang told TriplePundit. And something else had shifted for her: what she wanted to do. “The first time around, you’re a new undergrad with student loans, and money is a big driver,” she said. “Now I want a job to be more meaningful.”
Gillian Stubblefield, another Returner in the latest cohort, shared similar emotional challenges. As an entrepreneur, she launched an education-focused company and worked with private schools and U.S. embassies overseas doing community outreach. In 2016, she transitioned out of the workforce, but did not plan for it to be such a long absence. The psychological toll it took on her was similar to what Huang experienced. “After being out of the workforce for a while, your confidence is shaken,” she told us.
Stubblefield looked for opportunities to use her transferrable entrepreneurial skills, but she could not seem to get the satisfaction she was looking for. “There are clear barriers when there’s a gap in your resume,” she said, “especially when they ask for references.”
Both women gave continuing education a try — including taking courses and obtaining certificates — but they struggled to find the right fit, and their frustrations compounded by continued pressure related to the pandemic. The challenges as they tried to reenter the workforce took their toll, but the feasibility of what a new career would look like was equally daunting. “During the pandemic, my whole family’s home,” Huang told us. “I knew I couldn’t honestly spend 40 hours somewhere else.”
When the announcement of the Returnship landed in their inboxes, both wanted to see what it was all about.
“Thinking about returning during the pandemic was challenging,” Stubblefield said. "The chances of getting a job when I saw so many people losing jobs wasn’t getting my hopes up.” Huang agreed, saying: “I didn’t have a lot of hope I’d get an interview.”
The TechX Returnship’s cohort model created an instant network, supported by staff from T-Mobile and ReacHIRE, the partner company that manages the program, through trainings and team assessments. “I’ve never been onboarded like this before,” Stubblefield told us. “It’s one thing to offer an opportunity for women to come back into the workforce after a break, but to build our confidence as well. The cohort model with shared experiences to go through this together is such a great way to support each other.” She also appreciated that returning to the workforce as an older person was embraced in the program that prioritizes skills and experience. “I rocked my gray hair, and it didn’t phase anyone,” she said. “I was accepted for what I could bring to the table."
“It was surreal to think I was in the office working,” Huang added. “The fact that I’m working. Is this real? They build a huge safety net, and you feel that everyone wants you to be successful on this. A lot of us are going through the same emotions, but with the cohort, it’s comforting that we’re not doing this alone.”
The Returnship has offered these high-achieving women a place to update their already strong set of skills. For others looking to re-enter the workforce after a time away, both Huang and Stubblefield offered similar advice: volunteer, build up your network and look for opportunities to learn.
Huang, for example, taught Chinese classes at the start of her return-to-work journey, while Stubblefield volunteered helping disadvantaged students prepare for higher education. “It’s a way to rebuild your confidence and contribute to a cause you’re passionate about,” Stubblefield told us. “Keep learning, building personal and professional skills. Clean up your LinkedIn. Seek out new opportunities. The worst thing they can do is say no.”
Huang added that continuing to learn and serve also helped refine her goals. “You have to understand your purpose,” she explained. “Focus on your mission, and it’s easier to keep going. My mission wasn’t just to get a job, but also to help other women. You have to believe in what you’re doing. Everyone’s path is different. Through this experience, you know yourself better.”
Through the Returnship, both women have been given opportunities they did not foresee. For example, the day before speaking with TriplePundit, Stubblefield participated in a small meeting with the CEO of T-Mobile. And she’s found a new way to serve her passion by working on a team (the T-Mobile Accelerator) that helps startup companies in the tech space.
Returning to the workforce after an absence has its challenges, but programs like the TechX Returnship can help build skills and networks while creating a supportive work environment. While many Returners stay with T-Mobile at the end of the program, it can be a launching pad for going anywhere. “We’re in this program, keeping our feet on the ground and doing the work,” Huang said. “What happens after, only the future can tell.” Walking through that open door is the first step.
This article series is sponsored by T-Mobile and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Image credit: NDABCREATIVITY/Adobe Stock, Brandy Kennedy/Unsplash
Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.