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Returnships helping women get back into the workforce

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Posted at 11:07 AM, Oct 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-08 19:57:50-05

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Looking for a job is a job itself and one that can take months to get paid for. Linda Francis, a mother of three, knows how tough that search can be. She’s been looking for a job for more than a year.

“I'm applying for at least five jobs a week. I have to find work,” said Francis.

She taught herself to code and has decades of experience in technology and design, but she has one thing missing in her resume.

“My last contract was in 2014,” she said.

Francis took a six-year career break to raise her children. That gap is now making her job search a frustrating one.

“At first I thought, I'm just a failure, you know, and I was crushing myself,” said Francis. I'm also going through a divorce, and so there was just this overwhelming feeling that I just failed at these things. And then I landed on, 'No. You know what? You're just courageous.'”

Her courage pushed her to keep applying to job after job in the middle of the pandemic.

“I think that it's been a godsend, really, because it's expanded the number of opportunities. you're not just constrained geographically,” she said.

Still, applying for jobs across the country is no easy task. With more opportunity, comes more competition. She moved to the United States from Canada when her children were young.

One year into her job search, Francis was still looking for her next job.

“I'm 63 years old,” said Francis. “There are people that have the prejudice that think that we can't figure our way. We don't know the technology, like we don't understand how the internet works or we think it's a ‘Google machine’ or whatever. That is just B.S.,” said Francis, laughing.

So, she reached out for help and found Women Back to Work. The nonprofit is focused on retraining women to get back into the workforce after a gap in their career.

“It's never too late,” said the organization’s founder, Sonu Ratra.

Ratra founded the organization when she struggled to find work after raising her daughter.

“Little did I know that when I tried to return to work, all doors would be shut for me,” said Ratra. “I was in a bit of a shock, and I had all these qualifications which, like many women do, and nothing changed. Even today, 20 years later, women still struggle, women still face obstacles and hurdles to return to work.”

So, Ratra built a program called a Returnship. The program is like an internship, but it is for people who already have years of work experience and need to return to the workforce. It connects companies with qualified, experienced women hoping to close their resume gap and gives them the re-training they need before they are hired.

“We should try to make this really easy for women to weave in and out of the workforce as life happens without the prejudice and without attaching stigma to it,” said Ratra.

Ratra and Mira Stoimenova coach the women through the interview and hiring process. They meet with each woman, called a returner, on a weekly basis to help her gain the confidence and skills to move forward in her career.

“We organize different webinars, inspiring speakers, who give them practical tips. I teach them that it's okay to have a gap in your resume, that the career break doesn't define you,” said Stoimenova.

Stoimnova was inspired to join the Women Back to Work team after her own struggle to return to the workforce.

Born in Bulgaria, she moved to the United States after working in Europe for years. She had trouble finding work with no network in the U.S. Once she had her two sons, she found returning to the workforce after that second gap tougher than ever.

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“It was like a déjà vu,” said Stoimenova. “I already went through this, through the rejections, so immediately you get traumatized. I remember that very vividly. I want to turn my experience into something helpful to other women. I really believe that that's what's worth it and what kept me going.”

That is why she joined the team at Women Back to Work. She is now helping women avoid the emotional strife she went through, and all the resume building, application help, and advice is free for returners.

The program is also helping women not take a step back in their careers.

“The Returnship rules are structured in a way that recognizes that you're going to re-enter at a level and into a position that is more commensurate with your actual experience,” said Francis.

For her, that was a relief.

Ratra said now is a more important time than ever to get experienced women working without having to take a step backward.

“With the pandemic, we saw the impact for women in the workforce. about 2.5 million women left the workforce,” said Ratra. “If 1% of women leave the workforce, it costs the nation $7 billion. To move the economy forward, we're going to need to bring women back.”

With each Returnship, these women are teaching companies to shift stigma into opportunity.

“It begins with that culture,” said Ratra. “It begins with, look, it is a priority for me to hire women.”

Women Back to Work partners with specific companies that have Returnship programs to specifically hire women with gaps in their resumes. Ratra is hoping that one day all companies have these initiatives, so no woman who can do a job is disregarded.

“I see a lot of companies, they want to help, and they create these amazing leadership positions for them,” said Stoimenova. “So, we see a shift. Typically, women get this label when they take a break and they're not considered, they're overlooked. They're missing out on amazing professionals who had a career before the kids, who just stepped down, but they're ready with full force to come back and they have so much to offer.”

For Francis, she sees the shift with the interviews she’s now getting, but more than that, it’s also shifted her confidence.

“I'm very hopeful that it eventually will come around, and I just believe that the right opportunity is going to find its way to me,” said Francis.

If you’d like to get in touch with Women Back to Work, click HERE.