Utah women lost the most jobs during COVID-19. ‘Returnships’ aim to help them ‘level up,’ get back to work.

Governor says the new state program will help people who have gaps on their resumes after being out of the workforce.

Women have taken the brunt of job losses in Utah during the coronavirus pandemic, according to Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson.

Of the 12,000 positions lost in 2020, 4,000 were held by men, while twice as many — 8,000 — belonged to women, she said.

“Our low unemployment numbers show that we have gained back most of the ground that we’ve lost,” Henderson said at a news conference Thursday. “But we’ve also seen that occupations held predominantly by women are recovering at a slower rate than occupations held mostly by men.”

To help women and other Utahns get back into the workforce, Henderson and Gov. Spencer Cox announced the state’s new “returnship initiative.”

“Unlike internships, which are designed primarily for young people at the beginning of their careers, the goal of a returnship program is to help experienced adults reenter the workforce without starting at the bottom of the career ladder,” Henderson said.

Utahns can choose between two tracks in this new program. They can pursue return-to-work opportunities in state government and with Utah businesses. (This is for people “who don’t necessarily need additional education,” Henderson said.) Or, they can participate in short-term training opportunities at state universities and colleges.

More information is available at www.inutah.org/learn-work/.

While the program is not limited to women, it is focused on providing experience, training and mentoring to adults who haven’t worked “for an extended period of time,” she said. That could include full-time parents, military personnel and their spouses, caregivers, professionals who left their careers to advance their education, or retirees.

Cox cited his wife, first lady Abby Cox, as an example. Before he was elected governor, Cox said he talked with his wife, “who took 20 years out of the workforce to raise our family,” about her potentially going back to work. But she felt that was “almost impossible” because an employer would see that “huge gap” on her resume and not hire her, the governor said.

With this returnship initiative, though, “we get an opportunity to end that gap,” especially for women, Cox said.

Getting experience

Often, the skills that people pick up as a full-time parent or while out of the workforce for other reasons “don’t always easily translate well onto resumes,” Henderson said. But being able to list paid work experience with the state government or a business through a returnship can help when looking for a job, Cox said.

During their weekly news conference, held outside the Northrop Grumman plant in Roy, Cox and Henderson signed an executive order requiring state agencies to identify where and how these opportunities can be offered.

As part of their efforts to help women in the workforce, Henderson said that the governor has directed all state agencies to study not just whether there are gaps in pay among employees, but if there are discrepancies in opportunities and leadership roles. She said they’ve also encouraged state employees to look at how to make the workplace “better fit the worker instead of the worker always having to fit the workplace,” such as by offering flexibility by working from home.

Some of these barriers “don’t exist because people are trying to make it difficult for other people,” Henderson said. “They’re just sometimes ingrained in the culture, the way we do things ... and we’re just trying to rethink things a little bit.”

Representatives from Northrop Grumman joined Henderson and Cox on Thursday to announce that the aerospace and defense technology company is expanding its returnship program to the Beehive State.

One of the biggest concerns that we hear from employers in the state of Utah is that there are not enough qualified workers to fill their open positions,” Henderson said.

Northrop Grumman alone has 800 current job openings in Utah, according to Beth Pitts-Madonna, vice president of human resources. Programs like returnships can help employers fill those positions, Henderson said.

(Laura Seitz | Deseret News, pool) Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and Gov. Spencer Cox display an executive order announcing the launch of the Lieutenant Governor’s new "returnship" initiative at Northrop Grumman in Roy on Thursday, April 1, 2021.

Learn and Work

For those who need more education or training, there’s the Learn and Work in Utah program.

Last spring, during the height of the pandemic, the Utah Legislature designated $15 million in federal relief funds to help the state’s educational institutions offer classes and trainings in high-demand fields, according to Jessica Gilmore, associate commissioner for workforce development and industry engagement at the Utah System of Higher Education.

More than a dozen technical schools and colleges across the state participated, offering 155 in-person and online programs to 5,600 students, Gilmore said. Topics “ran the gamut from transportation, construction trades, automotive, CDL, to health care” and information technology. It has also helped some women enter male-dominated fields, such as additive manufacturing and 3D printing, according to Scott Romney, of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

“We targeted unemployed, underemployed and vulnerable workers with this grant money,” Gilmore said, which allowed them to waive tuition and fees for students.

“If you’re not working, you’re not choosing between going back to school and feeding your family. You’re going to feed your family,” she said.

During the recent session, the Legislature designated another $15 million in state money for a second round of the program, starting in June, Gilmore said.

These opportunities aren’t limited to people who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19. “It could be that somebody is working 30 hours a week, but they’re making minimum wage at best and they need to level up,” Gilmore said.

Managers of the Learn and Work program also are tracking students who land jobs after they finish. One woman who was laid off during the pandemic was hired at a job that pays her six figures, according to Gilmore, while another woman who had her hours cut due to COVID-19 was able to pursue higher education — decades after graduating from high school in the 1980s.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.