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From Stay-At-Home Mom to Software Engineer: How Returnships Bring Overlooked Talent to Tech

Angela Leaf

Meet Shaffaly Talwar. Her career journey is a familiar one.

  1. Choose a career path.
  2. Complete the necessary education and training to land a job in your chosen field.
  3. Enter the workforce, honing your skills as you put them into practice.

And like many working adults, Talwar encountered a proverbial fork in the road: parenthood.

When Talwar and her husband decided they wanted to start a family, they grappled with the decision every working parent must make. Do we find a childcare solution to continue working, knowing it will mean spending 8-12 hours a day away from my child? Or, do we put one of the parent’s careers on hold to assume full-time caregiving duties? A costly choice, either way.

“I didn’t want to look back and regret that I didn’t get to spend those first few precious years with my child,” explains Talwar. “While I enjoyed my work, I wanted to live every part of my life to the fullest. And that meant taking time away from my career to care for my daughter.”

Her daughter, Khushi, was born on November 24. For the next five years, Talwar’s days were filled with diaper changes, play dates and witnessing all of Khushi’s miraculous milestones, from walking and talking to her first day of school.

“It was when my daughter started school full-time that I thought, ‘If my daughter is getting out of the house, maybe it’s time for me to do the same.’”

Talwar hit the job hunt hard, but after months of unanswered applications, she became frustrated.

“I knew I had the right experience for the jobs I was applying to, but I wasn’t even making it to the first round of screenings. I heard absolutely nothing back. It was disheartening.”

Overlooked and Unemployed

Kate Weisshaar, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, focuses her research on gender and economic stratification processes within families, workplaces and society. In 2018, she published research that found many employers are biased against job applicants who elect to stay at home with their children. Her research found that employers preferred laid-off applicants who have been out of work for the same amount of time.

When she dug into the reasons why stay-at-home parents were more than half as likely to receive callbacks than other unemployed candidates, she found that many respondents viewed stay-at-home parents as:

  • Less reliable.
  • Less deserving of a job.
  • Less committed to work.

A New Path Forward

Talwar started researching return-to-work programs, often referred to as “returnships.” A returnship is a temporary job placement for professionals restarting their careers after taking time off for caregiving or other family obligations.

Talwar’s search led her to Path Forward, a non-profit organization dedicated to working with companies to create and run returnships. Since 2016, Path Forward’s worked with more than 50 companies to create return-to-work programs. The organization also hosts regular workshops that connect participants with alumni to help build networks and refresh skills.

The success of their programs is evident. More than 80 percent of the participants have been hired by the companies where they completed their returnship.

Bringing Overlooked Talent to Tech

One of the industries that would benefit most from recruiting and training talent from non-traditional places is the technology industry. Research from the Korn Ferry Institute suggests that by 2030, the tech industry will face a labor-skills shortage of 4.3 million workers.

Jim Allison is a senior director of engineering at VMware and has been with the company for nearly nine years. His team, part of VMware’s engineering organization, is one of the first at the company to participate in a return-to-work program.

“We are trying to recruit engineering talent in a very competitive environment [in the Bay Area]. So, we are always looking for ways to find exceptional talent in unexpected places,” Allison explains. “In a way, these programs provide a win-win for the employer and candidates. We can assess the candidate’s skills over an extended period of time, and the candidate can evaluate if the company’s culture is a good fit for them.”

Senior director of engineering Lilit Div partnered with Allison, among many others on their team, to pilot VMware’s returnship program. She was also the hiring manager for the initial set of openings created for returnship candidates.

“We decided to partner with Path Forward because they specialized in recruiting candidates with engineering backgrounds. I was blown away by candidates I interviewed,” Div says. “Honestly, it was a much more emotional process than I expected. It was difficult to rationalize how these highly-motivated women had been overlooked because of their choice to stay home with their children.”

Talwar is one of five Path Forward candidates currently completing a 16-week returnship on VMware’s engineering team. Nearly three months into her VMware returnship, Talwar says things are going really well.

“There were a few ups and downs in the beginning as we all adjusted to my new work schedule, but overall, it’s been great. I am getting to put my technical skills back to work and am learning new skills every day. I’m loving it.”