Sara Lee Program Opens Door for Parents Returning to Workforce

By Staff Report

Nov. 3, 2008

Sara Lee Corp. CEO Brenda Barnes has created a program that gives parents who left the workforce to raise children the opportunity to test the waters when they’re ready to return to the corporate world.

Sara Lee announced October 23, it’s launching “returnships,” four- to six-month internships at the Downers Grove, Illinois,-based food maker for midcareer professionals who have been out of the workforce for a few years.

Barnes knows the challenges such professionals face. In 1997 she resigned as president of PepsiCo Inc.’s North American beverage business to spend more time with her three school-age children. At the time, she came in for criticism that she might be hurting other mothers’ chances of climbing the corporate ladder.

Barnes, who joined Sara Lee in 2004 and took over as CEO in February 2005, developed the idea of returnships and “feels there is an untapped pool of talent for corporations,” said a Sara Lee spokesman. Barnes wasn’t available for comment Thursday.

“I haven’t seen anything like this [before], and it’s a great idea,” said Robert Wilson, president of Westmont, Illinois-based Employco Group Ltd., a human resources consultant. “It’s a great opportunity for someone re-entering the workforce.”

Wilson said that since most internships focus on employees fresh out of college, it can be difficult for many people to rejoin the workforce after several years off. And from a company’s point of view, such a program would help an employer find more seasoned workers.

Sara Lee is recruiting applicants to begin work in February in marketing, brand management, sales, finance, human resources and product innovation. The interns will be paid the equivalent of full-time employees based on experience, job skills and hours.

Filed by David Sterrett of Crain’s Chicago Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail

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