Amid the horrifying loss of jobs brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been one countervailing force: an urgent demand for medical and technology professionals to return to work from retirement or a career break.
Returning physicians and nurses, along with technologists proficient in the “ancient” COBOL coding language that many states still use in processing unemployment claims, are helping society — and this has put these “relaunching” professionals in the spotlight. More than ever before, they are being embraced and brought back to work as fast as they can make themselves available.
Employers have historically viewed this group of potential employees with skepticism, perceiving, variously, that their skills have deteriorated or become obsolete or that they are overqualified, will require long ramp-up times, lack commitment to the job, or are simply too old.
These concerns have faded during the crisis. Employers are recognizing the strengths this pool of workers has demonstrated all along: institutional knowledge, education, work experience, mature perspective, stable life stage, dedication, loyalty, and an energy and enthusiasm about returning to work.
In the nursing field, states have worked to expedite license renewals, allow nurses to practice across state lines, and engage them in short programs to refresh their skills. A similar phenomenon is happening abroad. As one headline put it: “’Once a Nurse, Always a Nurse’: 20,000 Former UK Medics Return to Battle Coronavirus.”
In the technology sector, programmers with a knowledge of COBOL, the decades-old mainframe programming language most wrote off years ago, are being called up. That also happened during the Y2K changeover and the unemployment spike caused by the Great Recession. Here’s why: When large-scale computer systems run on older mainframes with billions of lines of code, it’s not uncommon to find COBOL buried under layers of newer code.
The initial success in bringing health care workers and technologists back to the workforce — and the broader implications of the trend — are already attracting notice. In an interview with Next Avenue, David Grabowski, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, said, “Bringing physicians and nurses back in this crisis is a great idea….We should formalize it — a more systematic way to activate a source of physicians and nurses willing to return to the workforce.”
Grabowski is right. We should formalize the trend, building on the momentum in return-to-work programming to date. The past dozen years have seen rapid growth in return-to-work programs on Wall Street and in other areas of financial services. On the technology side, more companies are establishing programs for returning workers, either on their own or as part of initiatives such as the STEM Reentry Task Force , which now involves 32 companies, including some of the biggest in the world, across industry sectors ranging from defense to consumer goods.
While a handful of reentry programs for nurses and physicians exist, we haven’t seen that programming adopted on a large scale. Once the Covid crisis is over, the triumph would be to see the health care worker shortage (which predated the pandemic) at least partially remedied by replicating return-to-work programs such as Allegheny Health Network’s RetuRN to Practice Program, the Physician Retraining & Reentry program created in collaboration with faculty of the UC San Diego School of Medicine, and the Drexel University College of Medicine Physician Refresher/Re-entry program.
These programs are either internship-based “returnships” or “direct hire” programs in which participants are employees from day one, with professional development sessions, cohort models, and transitional mentoring support easing the reintegration to the workforce. Hiring rates at the completion of returnships average more than 80% — a testament to the high caliber of candidates the programs attract.
Companies use return-to-work programs to tap high-potential professionals who have taken career breaks for eldercare, childcare, health issues, or expat or military spouse experiences. Some of the programs also target people who are “unretiring” along with veterans transitioning to civilian roles. Notably, 28% of the Fortune 50 companies have created in-house return-to-work programs. But less than 6% of the broader Fortune 500 have.
The opportunity is clear, and the pool of talent is exceptional. Those who relaunched careers during the pandemic are making extraordinary contributions at our country’s darkest hour, dispelling stereotypes and hesitations about them.
When so many have lost their jobs and fear financial ruin, we can only hope for a speedy, broad-based recovery. No one can predict when that will happen, but eventually it will. When it does, we should think differently about how we hire and reintegrate returning professionals in all fields and should standardize formal return-to-work programs across industries. We are seeing the contributions these professionals are bringing to the table in an emergency, and we know from existing return-to-work programs the value they add long term. Let’s not forget those things once the downturn is history.
Disclaimer: iRelaunch co-leads the STEM Reentry Task Force with the Society of Women Engineers, and the Allegheny Health Network is a client of iRelaunch.