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Return Utah: Reducing the Stigma of Work Gaps



Pools of new talent for state and local governments are in short supply. One state, which has come up with a significant new effort is Utah with its program called Return Utah. Launched a year ago, it is designed to welcome individuals who have taken a break from work, for a wide variety of reasons, back into the workforce. “State agencies, just like everyone else, are experiencing a labor shortage where they need qualified candidates to fill roles that run the gamut,” says ShayAnn Baker, Return Utah’s program manager. “This is another hiring pool to pull from, which is often overlooked and stigmatized.”


Word of the success of this program has spread and states like Washington and New Mexico and several cities in Florida have recently started to explore emulating it.


Baker, a former television reporter in Salt Lake City, knows about the stigma of withdrawing from the workforce from personal experience. Eight years ago, she left her TV job to stay at home with her new baby. Since then, she had two other children and acquired a wealth of experience that comes with child-rearing, school fund-raising, and organizing community events. But none of that showed up on her resume.



ShayAnn Baker, program manager of Return Utah, with her children


“I knew that getting back in the news industry would be almost impossible,” she says. “I wouldn’t have any recent professional experience and then I was terrified about my resume. How do I cover that eight-year gap when you’re taught that gaps are bad?”


A year ago, Baker, who ultimately became manager of the program, was one of seven new workers who were part of the first cohort of the Return Utah pilot. Some of the new hires, like Baker, were employed on a temporary basis – in her case in the Department of Commerce. Others were put on the payroll with the “intent to hire” in a permanent spot. Like the other members of the pilot group, a regular job orientation period at her new agency was supplemented with 16-weeks of transitional coaching and assistance that included a technological refresher course, mentorships, and individual coaching to build her resume, establish a new network and build up her confidence.


Why does a returner need something like this? Baker’s answer: “Well, because they are rusty and that rust creates a lack of confidence. When I had my interview, I thought ‘Are they even going to listen to me because yesterday I was covered in peanut butter.’”

When Baker’s temporary job with Commerce ended, the Division of Human Resource Management offered her a full-time job as manager of the continuing Return Utah program.


With 16 individuals, the second Return Utah cohort will be finishing its 16-week session in two weeks. It includes a handful of women who, like Baker, had left the workforce to stay home with their children, as well as two individuals who had been out of the country; two whose withdrawal from professional work had resulted from illness and three who had left work to pursue education. Nine of the returners are women and six are men. A new bunch of returners will join the program in May.


Baker says that Return Utah is currently the only public sector program of its kind in the country, although there are many similar programs run by private companies. The program has been supported by the state’s executive leadership from day one. It was initially suggested by Lieutenant Governor Deidre Henderson’s chief of staff, who had left the workforce for eighteen years to raise her family. The Lt. Governor also had a shorter, but similar work gap for the same reason.


The Governor was on board immediately, launching the program with a April 2021 executive order that asked agencies to remove barriers of employment that prevented the hiring of individuals without recent work experience. The idea? “Basically, to reduce the stigmatization that comes from career breaks so that that we could access a different hiring pool,” says Baker.


What lessons have been learned from the first year of the program? On the positive side, she cites the importance of having a group of individuals who support each other as they go through the 16-week back-to-work transition period together. Also important, she says, was having technological refresher instruction, mentorships and access to executive leadership. In terms of areas to improve, she believes that more flexibility in program design would be beneficial to both agencies and participants.


Like many new programs, Return Utah has been operating on a shoe-string budget, as it is solely an executive initiative that has not yet received funding from the legislature – something that will be requested in 2023. “We’ve learned that good solid budgets are necessary,” Baker says.


Continuing the program is not a hard sell and plans currently are to begin welcoming three new cohorts a year. “It helps agencies fill a need and it helps returners get transitional support so their confidence can increase and their skill set can be renewed,” she says, adding that there are other benefits, as well. “They bring energy and motivation. They shake up the culture of the bureaucracy.”



Utah Lt. Governor Diedre Henderson with the current Return Utah cohort



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, and it’s designed to welcome back into employment individuals who have taken a break from work for a wide variety of reasons. “State agencies, just like everyone else, are experiencing a labor shortage where they need qualified candidates to fill roles that run the gamut,” says ShayAnn Baker, Return Utah’s program manager. “This is another hiring pool to pull from that is often overlooked and stigmatized.”

Baker, a former television reporter in Salt Lake City, knows about the stigma of withdrawing from the workforce from personal experience. Eight years ago, she left her TV job to stay at home with her new baby. Since then, she had two other children and acquired a wealth of experience that comes with child-rearing, school fund-raising, and organizing community events. But none of that showed up on her resume.

“I knew that getting back in the news industry would be almost impossible,” she says. “I wouldn’t have any recent professional experience and then I was terrified about my resume. How do I cover that eight-year gap when you’re taught that gaps are bad?”

A year ago, Baker was one of seven new workers who were part of the first cohort of the Return Utah pilot. Some of the new hires, like Baker, were employed on a temporary basis – in her case in the Department of Commerce. Others were put on the payroll with the “intent to hire” in a permanent spot. Like the other members of the pilot group, a regular job orientation period at her new agency was supplemented with 16-weeks of transitional coaching and assistance that included a technological refresher course, mentorships, and individual coaching to build her resume, establish a new network and build up her confidence.

Why does a returner need something like this? Baker’s answer: “Well, because they are rusty and that rust creates a lack of confidence. When I had my interview, I thought ‘Are they even going to listen to me because yesterday I was covered in peanut butter.’”

When Baker’s temporary job with Commerce ended, the Division of Human Resource Management offered her a full-time job as a manager of the continuing Return Utah program.

The second Return Utah cohort, which includes 16 returners, will be finishing its 16-week session in two weeks. It includes a handful of women who, like Baker, had left the workforce to stay home with their children, as well as two individuals who had been out of the country; two whose withdrawal from professional work had resulted from illness and three who had left work to pursue education. Nine of the returners are women and six are men.

A new bunch of returners will join the program in May.

Baker says that Return Utah is currently the only public sector program of its kind in the country, although there are many similar programs run by private companies. The program has been supported by the state’s executive leadership from day one. It was initially suggested by Lieutenant Governor Deidre Henderson’s chief of staff, who had left the workforce for eighteen years to raise her family. The Lt. Governor also had a shorter, but similar work gap for the same purpose.

The Governor was on board immediately, launching the program with a April 2021 executive order https://rules.utah.gov/wp-content/uploads/Utah-Executive-Order-No.-2021-08.pdf that asked agencies to remove barriers of employment that prevented the hiring of individuals without recent work experience. The idea? “Basically, to reduce the stigmatization that comes from career breaks so that that we could access a different hiring pool,” says Baker.

What lessons have been learned from the first year of the program? On the positive side, she cites the importance of having a group of individuals who support each other as they go through the 16-week back-to-work transition period together. Also important, she says, was having technological refresher instruction, mentorships and access to executive leadership. In terms of areas to improve, she believes that more flexibility in program design would be beneficial to both agencies and participants.

Like many new programs, Return Utah also has been operating on a shoe-string budget, as it is solely an executive initiative that has not yet received funding from the legislature – something that will be requested in 2023. “We’ve learned that good solid budgets are necessary,” Baker says.

Continuing the program is not a hard sell and plans currently are to begin welcoming three new cohorts a year. “It helps agencies fill a need and it helps returners get transitional support so their confidence can increase and their skill set can be renewed,” she says, adding that there are other benefits, as well. “They bring energy and motivation. They shake up the culture of the bureaucracy.”

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