Tad Greener’s career and expertise was mostly related to electric and natural gas utilities. Toward the end of 2019 he unexpectedly found himself subject to a “reduction in workplace” at the university where he worked at the time. Losing his job at age 60 “rocked my world,” he says. Still, he wasn’t too worried about landing another job since the economy was strong and a number of employers quickly expressed interest in meeting with him.
Then, as is so often the case, life intervened. The pandemic-driven economic lockdown shutdown potential job offers in early 2020. He also found himself dealing with a chronic illness that prevented him physically from working. He started looking for work again at age 62 with the economy on the rebound and his health better following some “monumental life changes.”
He’d been out of work for almost two years and one evening he learned from a news report about the Return Utah program which brings people with gaps in their careers into state employment. He joined the three-month program along with 15 to 20 other career-gap participants. He worked part time for several months with the Utah Office of Energy Development. At age 63, he is now a full-time employee at the state energy agency as a regional economic competitiveness officer. The job taps into the knowledge and skills he developed during his long energy-related career.
Read: ‘I needed something to do’: How working in retirement is being embraced by older adults and companies
“At that time, right at that juncture, I really did need a leg up,” says Greener. “Return Utah got me in the door.”
Return Utah is currently unique among state governments. Odds are it won’t stay that way for long. Governments at all levels in the competition for talent are increasingly attracted to recruiting experienced workers looking to relaunch their careers. For example, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston joined the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematical) Re-entry Task force and partnered with iRelaunch and the Society of Women Engineers to recently establish its Fed Resurgence program. The career re-entry initiative is designed to attract professionals who took a career break and are now looking to relaunch their careers.
The core idea behind various re-entry programs targeted at professionals is that careers often aren’t linear. Return-to-work programs are gaining momentum in the private sector, thanks to the potent combination of an aging workforce, increased longevity, and tight labor markets. Governments now look to join the return-to-work bandwagon. “Governments are big employers, and they are looking for high performing people like the private sector,” says Carol Fishman Cohen, chief executive officer and co-founder of iRelaunch, a company that works with employers to create career re-entry programs and leads a community of over 100,000 relaunchers.
For a longtime a hiring stigma attached to professionals who took time away from their career. That started to change about two decades ago when several Wall Street firms embraced formal career re-entry initiatives in an effort to boost their ranks of professional women. These days companies as diverse as Johnson & Johnson
have built career re-entry programs. In an intriguing sign of times, the professional job seeking platform Linked In added a “Career Break” label so people can describe their experiences while away from the world of paid work.
“People take career breaks that have nothing to do with work performance, including child care and eldercare,” says Cohen. “Employers started to see that there is a high caliber pool.”
The motivating force behind Return Utah was Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson who took a 13-year career break for family. ShayAnn Baker, program manager for Return Utah, is another relauncher. She was a human resources specialist and television reporter/producer before leaving the workforce to start a family in 2015. She was part of the inaugural class of Return Utah in the fall of 2021 and she now runs the program. “A career break gives them a major life perspective and the way they solve problems is typically a little more innovative,” she says. “It also increases equity in the state. People who might be stopped or face barriers to employment because of the career break. Despite the gap, they get looked at.”
The program is small but growing. iRelaunch helped set up Utah’s program. (A number of companies have emerged to meet the demand for creating re-entry programs, including iRelaunch, Path Forward and reacHIRE.) Each cohort is comprised of about 15 to 20 relaunchers. The participants receive 16 weeks of mentorship, training, and support, including a technology refresher course. Relaunchers are hired either on a temporary basis or with an intent to hire for a permanent position. A majority of participants have been asked to stay on the state’s payroll. “We think it can be much bigger,” says ShayAnn. “We’re excited about what we see.”
Among those with a position is Greg Flynn, a whistleblower investigator for the state of Utah. He retired in 2018 at age 62 from his 35-year career as a litigation paralegal to take care of his mother and play more golf. He wasn’t actively looking to unretire, but he got bored during retirement. He started keeping an eye out for work and he joined the Return Utah program after learning about it. “I was impressed by the talent pool,” he says.
Utah law protects employees who report health and safety concerns about their employer from retribution. His job is neutral fact finder when an issue comes up. The skills needed for the job are similar in many respects to what he did before retirement. He works from home and the work is part-time. “It fits well with what I wanted to do,” he says. “As long as I am mentally active and with the economy the additional income is a bonus.”
The various versions of formal re-entry programs in the private and public sectors aren’t specifically designed with experienced professionals in mind. There are many reasons behind career breaks, including military service, continuing education, a new baby, and retirement. But formal programs ease the transition back into the paid workforce, a clear benefit to older professionals who took time away from paid work. The emerging movement to create more opportunities for experienced professionals to join the public sector is a classic win-win situation considering the demographics of an aging population: Good for older professionals and an excellent choice for government as employer.