Abby Carrales didn't mean to take four years off work after her third child. She thought she would take two years, but then, when she was ready to go back to work, she spent two more years trying to get rehired.

Before she had children, she worked in technology at the University of California, San Francisco's hospital. "I had experience," she says.

"I came close to jobs in all manner of large tech companies," she says. She says she was asked in interviews how many children she had, how old her children were and how old she was.

Carrales found the nonprofit organization Path Forward, which connects companies to people wishing to return to the workplace by offering them "returnships" (think internships for people who already have work experience but have been out of the workplace for a number of years).

Most of the returnees are women who have left the workforce for child care reasons, but sometimes there are men who did the same or people who cared for sick parents or spouses.

Path Forward began as an internal initiative in 2014 in the human resource department of Return Path, an email marketing company, which has offices in the U.S. in Denver, New York, San Jose, Indianapolis and Austin.

Return Path's first returnship program had six returnees. It hired four of them permanently. Then six other companies reached out to Return Path asking them for help creating returnships. "There's something here, but the HR department can't run other people's HR," says Path Forward Executive Director Tami Forman.

Path Forward launched as a separate nonprofit entity in 2016 and this month is launching its first foray into Austin.

What Path Forward offers is help with skill-building for the returnees and education about rehiring this workforce for the companies. Then it connects returnees to companies for a 16-week returnship. At the end, either the company hires the returnee as a full-time employee or the returnee has developed more job skills and more recent experience for their résumé.

Six months after the returnship, about 80 percent of returnees are employed, most of them at the company that offered them the returnship, Forman says.

"It's a confidence boost," she says. "They have something new to talk about, and it's a signal to a future employer. ... They demonstrate ambition."

Most of the businesses Path Forward works with are high-tech companies like PayPal and Intuit, but it has also worked with Walmart and Campbell Soup Company. Tech companies are especially interested in this because "they have the twin problem of they know they don't have enough gender diversity and they don't have enough people," Forman says.

"That's why we think Austin is going to be a good market for us," she says. "We're looking at Seattle for the same reason."

Forman says the response from companies has been good. "It's, 'Oh, I never thought of that, but it's a great idea.'" Sometimes companies aren't quite large enough or ready to take this on, or they don't have the budget to do so, but "no one says no. We're literally selling motherhood and apple pie."

In Austin, Path Forward is busy connecting with companies interested in participating in the program this spring. By July or August, it hopes to be recruiting its first batch of Austin returnees to go through the program beginning this fall.

When Path Forward works with companies, it does training and development with human resources and managers on how to run the program as well as how to do onboarding and offboarding and how to help returnees translate skills they learned outside the workplace into the workplace.

With the returnees, the program works on how to leverage the skills they already have. They aren't finding a lot of skill gaps, Forman says.

Janet Van Huysse, head of people at Cloudflare, says Path Forward "has been a really great source of talent for us."

The returnees all have years of work experience, but sometimes employers and returnees are scared of gaps in employment. Path Forward helps build confidence at work as well as in the interview process. It also creates a community of returnees to support one another.

"It really does change the way you hire," Van Huysse says. "It did take a bit of a mindset shift. We really had to sit down and instead of looking at the résumé it's, where would this person best fit at Cloudflare?"

Some of the returnees have applied for jobs that were not as difficult as jobs they left years before or have had skills that would work better in a different department. "What I found was a little bit of a lack of confidence," Van Huysse says.

Carrales says there are skills she now has because she is a mother. "I am so incredibly productive," she says. "I've never been so productive in my life."

She says she can look at a situation from a macro level, assess the situation and consider various factors that might affect that situation.

"I'm a lot more confident having children," she says. "You are forced to grow and learn and use parts of your brain you've never used before."

In September, Carrales began a returnship at Cloudflare in San Francisco. It also has offices in Austin and will be part of the first group of companies at Path Forward here.

By December, Carrales was offered a full-time job there as an information security compliance specialist.

Carrales says she can't say enough good things about Path Forward and Cloudflare. "They really made this thing happen," she says. "We are working so hard to show the world we are not castoffs. We are the same women you hired when we were 25. We're actually better."

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