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Internships With Sara Lee Help Returning Workers

Posted on October 27, 2008

A new kind of internship is taking shape at Sara Lee.

Brenda C. Barnes, CEO of Sara Lee, recently announced the creation of a program she calls “returnships.” The program is a four-to-six-month paid internship for people who have been out of a Chicago job for three to five years and are currently trying to return to work, according to an article by Forbes.

The company has 10 to 12 internships at its Downers Grove, Ill. headquarters. The internships are in such fields as marketing, accounting, sales, finance and the legal department. The only requirement is that applicants have some experience in that field of work.

Sara Lee, which operates brands including Ball Park, Hillshire Farms and Jimmy Dean, can’t promise full-time positions for the participants at the end of their returnship. The company laid off 300 of its 1,200 workers in April, 100 who worked at the headquarters.

Barnes, who left PepsiCo‘s North American operations in 1997 to take care of her three children, came up with the idea for the internships based on her own experience. After she left the company, she served on corporate boards, served four months as interim president of Starwood Hotels & Resorts and joined Sara Lee full-time in 2004.

While the internship program isn’t working to specifically target females, it is expected the majority of applicants will be women.

“There’s a large pool of women who chose to leave the work force,” Barnes said in the article. “But it doesn’t mean they lost their brains.”

According to a 2005 Wharton survey of 130 female executives who left their jobs for at least two years, 50 percent found themselves frustrated with the job hunt and 18 percent found the job search depressing. While 80 percent of those surveyed had MBAs, but were still faced with the difficulty of keeping their skills up to date and staying on top of business trends.

Other companies also are offering chances for people to get back into the workforce. UBS hosts an annual “Career Comeback” conference for women, Goldman Sachs launched its own returnship program this year and other companies are turning to alumni networks.