As recently as five years ago, a significant gap in a job candidate’s resume would have been a dealbreaker for many hiring companies. But after the pandemic pushed hundreds of thousands of workers into caregiver roles and early retirements, numerous organizations have experienced difficulty staffing up in the corporate growth cycle that has followed. Particularly in specialized sectors of industry (technology, for example), an extended hiatus from the working world is no longer the red flag it once was. In fact, some companies are even actively courting these candidates with return-to-work programs.

Returnships and return-to-work programs are designed to provide support, training and mentorship to employees seeking to reboot their careers after an extended absence from the workforce. These programs typically provide participants with short-term, paid assignments or internships that allow them to refresh their skills, gain new knowledge and get up to speed on the latest trends and technologies in their field.

For the sponsoring organizations, return-to-work programs can be a supplementary pipeline to access skilled, experienced professionals who may only require a bit of seasoning before being ready to bring their abilities to bear. The number of return-to-work initiatives has more than doubled since 2016, with employers from Amazon and Pepsi to Deloitte and Morgan Stanley launching programs, and other companies endeavoring to grow and augment their own. If you’re a worker who has been out of rotation for even just a year, here’s how to approach your own return to work.

How to Approach Return-to-Work Programs

Tell a compelling story. Writing a snappy cover letter and preparing to dazzle recruiters in interviews are good rules of thumb for any job seekers, but they’re mission-critical for candidates who have been on the shelf for long periods. Reluctant retirees and overtaxed parents affected by COVID’s fallout are likely to encounter sympathetic ears during their job search, but they should still be prepared to rationalize their absence from the workforce. Others should be ready with a locked-and-loaded narrative. “I just needed the break” won’t get a candidate very far with a hiring manager. But “I used my downtime to explore my interest in entrepreneurship,” then following up with a few details, shows drive and an evolving skill set.

Investigate situation-specific programs. Plenty of returnship and return-to-work programs serve the general employee population, but it’s worth doing some digging to learn about any initiatives that align with your individual circumstances. Working mothers have traditionally faced a mountain of challenges over the years, but the alternative – taking extended time away from the workforce to raise children – can be just as daunting. Thankfully, those candidates can turn to programs like The Mom Project, which helps connect mothers with companies eager to work with them and provides upskill opportunities to improve moms’ chances to land preferred positions.

Consider all your options. If you’re a returner who has had no luck landing a job on the open market, return-to-work programs can help. But don’t limit yourself. Be sure to examine any independent contracting opportunities that can help you hop back on the career ladder – or find a foothold in a new area. Many businesses want a contractor with recent experience and the ability to hit the ground running, which means a returner coming off a long work absence may not be the ideal fit. But with unemployment still near record lows and specialized talent in especially high demand, you may be surprised to find some work suitors willing to think (and hire) outside the box.