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Heading back into workforce? Program aims to help with 'daunting' task

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson announced Tuesday the official launch of the new program designed to create work opportunities in Utah for people reentering the workforce after an extended absence of two years or more.

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson announced Tuesday the official launch of the new program designed to create work opportunities in Utah for people reentering the workforce after an extended absence of two years or more. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)



SALT LAKE CITY — Before her career in politics, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson was a full-time caretaker for her children for 13 years. After over a decade, she decided to return to the workforce, but she didn't even know where to start.

She knew that she had the skills to be a great worker, some developed by her time as a stay-at-home mother, but she was concerned that employers would think she was out of practice or wouldn't appreciate the gap on her resume.

"It was a little bit daunting," she said.

After figuring out her path the hard way and building a successful career in politics, she was in a position to help another woman with a similar resume gap. The lieutenant governor's now chief of staff, Jen Robison, first approached Henderson years ago looking for an internship after being a stay-at-home mother and, freshly divorced, needing to work to reenter the workforce to support herself. Now Robison has a successful career in politics and a master's in public administration.

So when the two were brainstorming ways to help people in similar situations — especially during the labor shortage and the global pandemic taking an economic toll on many families — they decided to create a program called Return Utah to meet that need statewide.

Henderson announced the official launch of the new program Tuesday, an initiative to create work opportunities in Utah for people reentering the workforce after an extended absence of two years or more.

The "returnship" program is meant to give participants the experience, training, skills and mentoring in order to be prepared to reenter the workforce with higher-paying and more stable careers. It has two tracks: return-to-work opportunities in state government and short-term training at Utah colleges and universities through the Learn & Work program, which allows unemployed or underemployed individuals to receive tuition assistance to enroll in short-term training programs at Utah colleges and universities.

Although more than half of adult women in Utah are employed, Utah routinely ranks last in equality for women, largely because of its wage gap between men and women. The majority of stay-at-home parents in Utah and across the United States are women, so women comprise the main demographic of people this program will serve.

This program is designed to prepare more women for more stable jobs in high-impact fields like technology, business and health care, which would improve employment rates and increase average pay for women in Utah.

"For so long, we've seen negative headlines about Utah and women, like how so many women graduate from college and then don't enter into careers," said Britt Larson, an executive career coach with Livlyhood, a community for women who work. "This is my favorite thing the governor and lieutenant governor have done so far. Being able to brag about this and share it with my national audience has given me a lot of hope."

Larson had to go through two rounds of IVF to have a baby. Even though she was in a management position, the company she was working for at the time didn't provide the flexibility that she needed to start the journey to motherhood, so she left.

"I just felt so lost," she said.

When she began her coaching business, she specifically wanted to figure out how companies could keep women around who were in situations similar to hers. In her business, she has found that stay-at-home parents returning to the workforce have developed qualities that make them ideal hires.

"They're mature, efficient, independent and good at problem-solving. All of these things are skills that mothers use on an hourly basis. They are skills that they had before, during and after motherhood. Becoming a mother is part of who I am, but it doesn't change that I had years on Capitol Hill and experience before I became a mother," she said.

The issue of returning to work after taking time to be a stay-at-home parent is largely an issue that applies to women, but more and more fathers are choosing to stay home with their children.

Draper resident Troy Pattee was a stay-at-home dad for 10 years until his family's financial situation required him to return to the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though he was in a mid- to upper-management position in marketing communications before he became a full-time caretaker for his two sons and had a master's in business administration, he still struggled to find a well-paying job remotely close to his previous level. Did he choose to cover up that gap or explain why he had left the workforce?

"When I started being a stay-at-home parent, I related to women because, wow, it's harder than I thought. Then when I tried to reenter the workforce, I also related to women because that was also harder than I thought," he said. "I began to realize that I was facing the same problem that millions of women have faced for decades."

Marketing communications had changed drastically over the past decade, and he didn't even recognize the job descriptions anymore. So, because he had a family to help support, he took a less-than ideal job which helped pay the bills. However, that job, plus the fact that he is a man, disqualifies him from most returnship positions. He wishes that companies and organizations creating these positions would make allowances for people like him who are underemployed.

The Learn & Serve program with Return Utah does allow applications from people who are underemployed.

"I'm happy that the state of Utah is participating in this phenomenon and doesn't seem to just be focusing on women," he said. "This is an amazing opportunity for employers to get someone with real, applicable experience. It's a pool of people that employers are really not tapping into, and it's a larger pool than employers realize."

Henderson explained that Return Utah was built as a way to bridge the resume gap so stay-at-home parents going back to work can find jobs that utilizes these skills.

"Unfortunately, the experiences you get as a stay-at-home parent don't always translate well onto a resume, but it doesn't mean that you don't have incredibly relevant and valuable experience. We are rethinking what it means to be qualified — expanding our net, our reach," she said.

The result is a win-win; the workforce gets fresh, new employees during a labor shortage and people are offered opportunities they might not otherwise have, she added.

"The biggest thing that we hope is that it feels like they have that option," she said. "The door is open for them. They aren't automatically barred."

Applications for the first Return Utah cohort are being accepted now through Aug. 1 with an expected start date of Sept. 7. Applicants can find jobs on the Return Utah website.

"I invite those who are ready to return to work to join the 'Return Utah' program," said Henderson in a statement. "We need their experience, creativity, and excitement in our workforce today."

Correction: A previous version misidentified the lieutenant governor's chief of staff Jen Robison as Jen Robinson.

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