News / Utah / 
Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, left, and Gov. Spencer Cox display an executive order announcing the launch of the lieutenant governor’s new returnship initiative outside of Northrop Grumman's offices in Roy on Thursday, April 1, 2021.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News, File

Utah launches returnship program for adults impacted by COVID-19's economic toll

By Carter Williams, | Posted - Apr. 1, 2021 at 3:38 p.m.

ROY — State officials on Thursday announced they have launched a new initiative aimed at expanding workforce opportunities for Utahns who have struggled to re-enter the workforce following the economic constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. Spencer Cox signed an executive order that directs state agencies to review ways that could make it easier for "returnship" for people and remove any barriers that would make it difficult for people to return to the workforce.

Utah is the first state to implement a program like what is being offered, according to Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson. She explained at a Thursday news conference that the program differs from an internship, which typically revolves around giving younger individuals job experience at the beginning of their careers.

"The goal of a returnship program is to help experienced adults re-enter the workforce without starting at the bottom of the career ladder," she said. "Diversity and life experience are valuable to us and shouldn't be relevant to pay and opportunity in the workplace."

Cox clarified that state returnships will be paid. The state also called on private businesses to provide similar opportunities Thursday.

The announcement was made outside of Northrop Grumman's space systems facility in Roy. Beth Pitts-Madonna, vice president of human resources for the aerospace company, said Northrop Grumman would expand its iReturn program to Utah.

The program, which it offered in five other states last year, provides a 12-week returnship for possible full-time careers.

"We made a promise to the state to bring in employees. We made a promise to the state to invest in infrastructure and a promise that we made is a promise that we have kept," added Greg Manuel, vice president and general manager of the company's strategic deterrent systems division.

In addition, the state will provide $15 million in new grant funding for the Learn & Work program in the state. The program was initially launched last year and the success of its original round led to Utah lawmakers setting aside more funding, state officials said.

Under the program, unemployed, underemployed and new skill students can receive low or no-cost short-term training at the state's universities and colleges so they can enter a new field of work. Henderson said individuals trying to re-enter the workplace will be prioritized.

Henderson said the state's returnship program will focus on trying to get people back into the workforce who haven't been able to over the past year. It will also aim to retrain workers for fields where employers have struggled to find qualified employees.

Officials said that includes computer science, health care, manufacturing, transportation, business and other "high-impact" industries.

David Woolstenhulme, Utah Commissioner for Higher Education, said the Utah System of Higher Education was "proud" to enter into a partnership with local employers through the program.

"Our training programs and partnerships with employers are intended to connect individuals with career opportunities while providing employers with a well-prepared workforce," he said in a statement.

Both Cox and Henderson referenced some of the jobless trends that appeared in Utah and the U.S. over the past year. That includes the "pink recession," revolving around women who have disproportionately impacted by unemployment over the past year.

Henderson said from 2019 through 2020, there were 12,000 people who left the workplace and two-thirds of the people who lost jobs were women.

"We've seen occupations held predominantly by women are recovering at a slower rate than occupations held by men," she added.

A recent National Women's Law Center report found that about 80% of 1.1 million workers who left the labor force in September were women. The organization added Latina and Black women were also disproportionately impacted.

Cox said the pandemic provided clear examples of disparities in diverse communities, which is why he said state leaders have worked with the Multicultural Commission and Martin Luther King Commission to address issues in all of the state's communities. That includes trying to provide more equitable education.

As for the program announced Thursday, Cox pointed to concerns his wife, First Lady Abby Cox, had about trying to re-enter the workforce after 20 years off to help raise their family. The governor said his wife didn't think she would be qualified because of the large gap in her professional career. He recognized that large gaps are something that can make it difficult for any parent trying to return to the workforce.

"Now they get to go to an employer and say 'I just spent three months, six months whatever' working for the governor of the state of Utah' and that looks pretty cool. And then they're going to win some of those (job openings) the next time because they don't have a gap," Cox said. "Let me assure you that just because you're not in the workforce doesn't mean you don't have the skills necessary to be successful in the workforce … but people who look at resumes don't see that, they don't see those other skills.

"We get a chance to get them back to fill their resume and the state of Utah benefits from that, as well."

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