Connecting state and local government leaders
In Utah, a first-of-its kind program provides training and mentorship for people taking government jobs after time away from the workforce.
When John Haigwood had cancer surgery in November 2016, he was working in a middle-management position with Utah’s Department of Transportation, a job he was well qualified for.
But following the surgery, he had an unanticipated series of chronic illnesses and “I just couldn’t function in a standard work week,” he says. So he left his job.
Months after he was able to start looking for work again, Covid-19 hit, drying up opportunities. “I started casting a wider net and began trying to find a ‘just-pay-the-bills’ job,” he says.
One of the major challenges Haigwood confronted in his job hunt was the stigma of the gap in his resume. This is a commonplace issue among people who have had to leave the workplace for a variety of reasons, including illness, mid-career education, and, very frequently, the need to take time off to raise a family.
“I knew that people saw the gap in a career as a red flag,” he says.
Then, in the summer of 2021, he saw a tweet about Return Utah, a state effort to attract people with glaring resume gaps, who frequently find it difficult to restart their careers regardless of their qualifications.
Utah is the only state to have a program like this one, although the model has been around for a long time in the business community. In fact, the Wall Street firm, Goldman Sachs, launched the first “returnship” program in 2008, according to Carol Fishman Cohen, founder of consulting firm iRelaunch, which is engaged almost exclusively in the private sector but is expanding into the public sector. It helped Utah set up its program.
When Haigwood joined the Return Utah program, he received 16 weeks of support, education, mentorship and training. In late April, he took a full-time job with the state’s Department of Natural Resources, which he refers to as his “happy place.”
The program’s timing couldn’t have been better for the state. When it began, Utah wasn’t having great difficulties filling jobs, but as the unemployment rate has dropped and the “great resignation” has grown, the need for more human capital has become increasingly acute. (Other states, of course, are desperate to fill jobs of all kinds and could be following suit.)
Though Utah’s program is relatively small and has only had a couple of dozen people involved, the intention is for it to grow steadily. The results have been excellent. Of those who have participated, 92% have permanent employment and 82% are working for Utah.
No wonder other states, including New Mexico and Washington, are watching Utah and considering similar programs. As Washington’s director of policy and international relations, David Bremer, says, “The state needs more people in its workforce, and when we saw what Utah was doing we asked, ‘why can’t it work here?’
“We’re having initial conversations about it, with the governor’s office, our department of financial management, our HR office, some individual agencies and some public sector unions as well,” he says.
As Cohen points out: “There are more vacancies in the public sector workforce than we’ve seen before and there’s demand for people to fill those roles. This works well for the public sector, because the pool of people who take extended work breaks is a hidden, but increasingly recognized high-caliber group of people who are mature, have worked before and are educated. They’re also often very excited about the prospect of being back at work.”
When looking at people with a gap in their resumes, Utah asks questions like: Does the candidate demonstrate strong communication skills? Does the candidate show an ability to learn and grow? Does the returner have experience that is either professional or voluntary that would provide value to the position they are applying for?
Return Utah is significantly more than just an open door to people with resume gaps: It helps them overcome the many challenges that people who have been out of the workforce face to succeed when they re-enter. Workers hired either on a temporary basis, or with the promise that there’s an “intent to hire” for a permanent slot.
Returnees typically get 16 weeks of transitional coaching and assistance that include a technological refresher course, mentorships and individual coaching to build their resumes, establish a new network and boost their confidence.
What’s more, according to ShayAnn Baker, a member of Return Utah’s first cohort and now the program’s manager, there’s value in belonging to a group of individuals who support each other as they go through the 16-week back-to-work transition period together. Also important, she says, is having technological refresher instruction, mentorships and access to executive leadership.
The Return Utah program was the brainchild of Utah’s Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, who returned to the workforce after 13 years as a stay-at-home mom. “At first, this wasn’t meant to be a program,” she says. “It was something I wanted to do in my office. But I realized it shouldn’t be just in my office, and I knew that the governor wanted to break down arbitrary barriers to success. So, I brought the idea to Gov. Cox, and he said, ‘Make it big.’”
In April 2021, he signed an executive order that required agencies to remove barriers of employment that prevented hiring individuals without recent work experience. Right now, two thirds of the state’s agencies have joined in, and the remaining third will come on board soon, according to Henderson.
Like many new programs, Return Utah has been operating on a shoestring budget, as it is solely an executive initiative that has not received funding from the legislature—something that will be requested in 2023. Right now, the agencies are bearing the cost of the 16-week transition period. “We’ve learned that good, solid budgets are necessary,” Baker says.
Continuing the program was not a hard sell, and there will be three returner cohorts in 2022. Leaders are considering replacing discrete cohorts with a rolling application process that would enable positions to be filled more easily as they open up, which would help expand the effort.
“It helps agencies fill a need and it helps returners get transitional support so their confidence can increase, and their skill set can be renewed,” Baker says. There are other benefits, as well. “They bring energy and motivation. They shake up the culture of the bureaucracy.”
Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.