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The “40-Year-Old Intern” Goes to Wall Street

by Carol Fishman Cohen  |   10:00 AM February 24, 2014

In mid-September 2013, 10 professionals returning from multi-year career breaks walked into 270 Park Avenue in New York City to begin the J.P. Morgan ReEntry Program. Elsewhere on Wall Street, Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse have recently initiated internship programs for return-to-work professionals. The Onramp Fellowship for returning lawyers, backed by four major law firms in 15 cities, opened for applications last month, and MetLife just announced a similar program to commence this spring.

In the six years I have been tracking return-to-work programs, I have never seen five, new, big-employer returning professional internship programs debut in such a short span. And last week J.P. Morgan Asset Management’s Head of Diversity Gordon Cooper told me his firm is now introducing a Legal ReEntry Program. (In full disclosure, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, MetLife, Morgan Stanley, and Onramp Fellowship have all worked with my firm.)

In November 2012, I wrote an article for HBR about the emergence of returning professional internship programs across a wide range of sectors: for-profit, non-profit, military and academic institutions. At the time, Goldman Sachs’ Returnship was the only thriving, return-to-work internship program at a large company. To date, 123 “returnees” have participated in the 10 week Goldman program in the U.S., and roughly 50% have been hired into permanent positions. The three new Wall Street programs follow a similar formula to Returnship in terms of timing and small class size. All of the programs are paid.

The OnRamp Fellowship operates on a different model.  Applicants pay a $250 fee to cover the cost of career development assessments, but those who are selected receive a $125,000 work and training fellowship, plus benefits, for their first year at one of four major law firms: Baker Botts, Cooley, Hogan Lovells, and Sidley Austin. Applications are being accepted until March 7 and fellowships begin this summer.

What triggered all of this activity? Why now? J.P. Morgan’s Cooper explains it this way: “Many companies are waking up to the incredible amount of untapped talent that has left Wall Street firms.” The Onramp Fellowship’s Caren Ulrich Stacy adds: “This year marks the fourth consecutive annual decline in the number of mid- to senior-level female associates in large law firms. We need a way to replenish this pipeline, and fast. The Fellowship was built to increase gender diversity in law firms while also giving women who want to return after a hiatus an opportunity to expand their skills, experience, and legal contracts as they re-enter.”

Now that the economy is stable enough for companies to look beyond the recession, we are seeing a renewed focus on building pipelines with the top candidates from all recruiting pools, including the returning professional pool.  Forward thinking companies have long recognized that the return-to-work demographic, composed primarily of women who took time off to care for children, is full of high achievers. “This talent pool is especially strong, and we expect our Return to Work Program to uncover some exceptional individuals who will contribute greatly to the Firm,” says Susan Reid, Morgan Stanley’s Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion. At Credit Suisse, firm representatives characterized their Real Returns program as an “opportunity to connect with a highly skilled and untapped diversity pool.”

Recruiting professionals at the end of career breaks, when they are largely done with maternity leaves and spousal job relocations, is a smart strategy.  The use of internships as a testing ground helps remove any perceived risk that some managers may associate with hiring from this pool, and gives the participants a gradual and structured ramping-up platform.  The internship allows the employer to base the permanent hiring decision on work product and a longer opportunity to get to know a prospective employee, instead of a short series of interviews. As one hiring manager commented “I wish I could hire everyone this way.”

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