RESTON, Va. — The nation's largest private employer opened the doors of a nondescript office park to job seekers on June 12, but this wasn't the typical career fair.
That day the outpost of Walmart Labs, Walmart's technology-focused subsidiary, hosted a classroom of people interested in a "returnship" with the company. The program, operated in partnership with the nonprofit Path Forward, aims to reel talented mid-career individuals who've left the workforce into Walmart's talent pool. Before walking up for handshakes with on-site staff, attendees got a bit of a pep talk.
"Take the leap," Tami Forman, Path Forward's executive director, said. "The world needs you."
It's a message that might resonate with the thousands of Americans who leave the workforce every year. The causes can range from caregiving responsibilities at home to the pursuit of additional education, according to statistics from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Caregiving alone caused nearly one-third of respondents to a 2019 Harvard Business School survey to voluntarily leave their jobs.
"I think that's why these programs have become so popular," Forman told sister publication HR Dive in an interview. "That's a pretty big group of people overall, and the vast majority are women."
Forman said the Reston location is looking to hire for eight to 10 positions over the coming weeks. There are at least 100 such returnships up for grabs across Walmart Labs locations, including those in Sunnyvale, San Bruno and Carlsbad in California, as well as in Hoboken, New Jersey, and at Walmart's headquarters city, Bentonville, Arkansas. To be eligible, candidates need five years of professional experience and need to have taken a "career pause" of at least two years for caregiving.
At the Reston office, employees create applications and software used by Walmart store associates, ranging from algorithms that recommend pricing for items on shelves to programs that can detect when those same items are out of stock. These projects require an advanced technical background, Radina Mileva, senior HR manager at Walmart Labs, said at the event, but experience isn't the only prerequisite for the right candidates.
"We're looking for potential," Mileva said, adding the company isn't looking for any one skill in particular. "We just want them to have that passion."
It's the second year Walmart has partnered with Path Forward to host returnships. The company said in a blog post that it brought on more than 30 women last year who worked in paid engineering, user experience, product management and data science roles for four months. Applicants can expect a similar arrangement this time around, Walmart said.
Forman said attendees of Path Forward events have 11 years of job experience on average, and she added the majority have a Bachelor's degree with about half holding some sort of advanced degree.
"This is a highly experienced, highly skilled labor force, but they also, on average, have been out of the labor force for about six and a half years," Forman said. "For a lot of managers, that's a non-starter."
One attendee, who told HR Dive he preferred not to be named, said he originally held a job outside of the technology industry before deciding to pursue a career in development. But he said he had a difficult time finding an internship that would help him break into the industry, having searched multiple sites' listings, including those hosted by Glassdoor, Monster and Indeed.
"My experience is that someone who took time out of their career to spend time with their family is very motivated to get back into the workforce," Forman said. "They want to prove themselves, they want to be engaged intellectually again, they want to have financial security. They are as motivated as anyone else who walks through your door."
Mileva said she viewed the Reston area as a very talented market and that Walmart views the returnship program as a "win-win" for itself and the community. There are signs other companies are catching on, too: oil producer BP announced in February it would bring back a returnship program for women and men who took an extended family or personal leave following a successful pilot of such a program in 2017.