by Sarah K. White

T-Mobile’s returnship program aims to get women back into tech

Jul 23, 2020
CareersDiversity and InclusionIT Leadership

A text message prompted T-Mobile to launch a returnship program designed to foster gender diversity by retraining women trying to get back into IT after taking time off.

Women make up 47 percent of all employed adults in the U.S., yet as of 2015 they held only 25 percent of computing roles, according to data from the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). Representation for BIPOC women is even worse, with Asian women representing just 5 percent of the tech workforce while Black and Hispanic women account for 3 percent and 1 percent, respectively.

Nearly half of women (48%) cited “gender discrimination in recruitment” as one of the major reasons why there aren’t more women in STEM, compared to only 29 percent of men, according to a 2018 gender diversity study from Pew Research. Many women who have left tech jobs, either due to gender discrimination they experienced in the workplace or to care for children or family members, face obstacles getting back into the workforce due to bias over gaps on their resumes. To drive greater diversity in their workforces, and to make the most of this market of skilled IT workers who are often overlooked, some companies are embracing “returnships” — internships for experienced workers who want to make a career change or get back into an industry they left, leaving gaps on their resume.

T-Mobile is one such company offering a returnship program aimed at helping qualified women get back into tech by training them up on the latest skills and offering them valuable hands-on experience for a variety of IT jobs — and it all started with a text message.

Launching the returnship

T-Mobile has more than 52 nationwide inclusion and diversity chapters, and in 2019 participation in those programs rose to 44 percent, up from 11 percent three years prior. One such group, T-Mobile’s Women’s Leadership Network, includes a sub-group called the Women Technology Team, consisting of around five women engineers. After attending a session about returnships at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, two engineers from that sub-group sent a text message to Brian King, COO of the technology group at T-Mobile, with information about the concept, which ultimately sparked the entire program.

T-Mobile has already made strides in gender diversity and inclusion initiatives, ranking in the top 5 percent of companies for D&I based off data collected by Comparably. But the company knew from internal research and analysis that it still had “some work to do,” according to King, who was easily convinced that a returnship to help women get back into technology would be a great addition.   

The company tapped its traditional internship program to find strong mentors and leaders in the organization to help pilot the new program. Once King established a team, they decided to partner with reacHIRE, a company that partners with small and large companies to help provide training and paths to leadership for women returning to technology.

King’s team started small with a pilot program, bringing on six women out of 368 applicants. Those six women were given one week of onboarding training in soft skills and tools by reacHIRE to ensure they were up to date on the latest enterprise tools. From there, the six women started full-time work at T-Mobile in the roles they applied for, which included project management, networking, engineering, technical project oversight and the technology training team.

The program ran for six months, ending in May of this year. At the end of the program, all six women were offered jobs with T-Mobile and five accepted their offers — the sixth accepted an offer from a competitor, which King still considers a “100 percent success rate.”

Shifting the hiring strategy

There’s a shift in the technology industry to embrace hiring for talent and ability, rather than specific skills. Technology changes so quickly that the skills you’re looking for today can change within the year. Rather than trying to find someone with the experience in specific tools, software or hardware, it’s often simpler to recruit and hire smart, talented people who are eager to learn and who provide a good culture fit.

King’s team found that the returnship program helped the company reframe what skills are considered transferable. For example, if a woman takes time off to raise kids or care for an ailing relative, that shouldn’t necessarily be considered a “gap” on their resume. Instead, those skills should be viewed as transferable to other roles on top of their past experience in the workforce. You might interview a programmer with coding skills who took 10 years off of their career to raise kids, but who still gained valuable transferable skills during that time through other hobbies, activities or responsibilities.

King’s team didn’t look at current applicants’ skills when deciding which applicants to accept to the returnship program. Instead the conversation focused on “team interaction and how well [applicants] could communicate, and if they had the necessary aptitude for learning and relearning.”

Applicants went through the typical hiring process, which took place in-person prior to COVID-19. Hiring managers were instructed to look at candidates in a different light: Instead of focusing on skills and experience, hiring managers were given the freedom to determine whether they felt the candidate would be a good culture fit for the team. From there, they’d evaluate what skills the applicant would need to learn to be fully qualified for the position they applied for.

Looking to the future

The pilot program was such a success that T-Mobile has immediate plans to expand the initiative to other parts of the organization. The returnship program has also shifted the future of T-Mobile’s hiring strategy. The organization has implemented software to help eliminate bias in the recruitment process. HR has also overhauled job descriptions, rewriting them to avoid gendered or biased language that can dissuade women from applying for technical roles. The goal is to ensure T-Mobile is continuously “attracting the best talent” and reaching a diverse talent pool, says King.

Now that the pilot program is complete, King says his team has the framework in place to effectively run the program on a larger scale. Since the success of the program, King’s team has worked on integrating HR into the process and ensuring that they have the right foundation to launch the program throughout the company.

“We wanted to learn through the pilot. We wanted to make sure that we have the right managers and mentors and that they were set up to be successful. We now have a formula that works. And we have a formula that we can scale within the rest of technology and make sure that we’ve got the right level of champions within each of the departments,” says King.