Return Utah: A Work-Based Learning Initiative for the Long-Term Out of Work

Staff from the NGA Center for Best Practices recently sat down with Utah Lieutenant Governor Deidre Henderson to learn about the Return Utah program. While in Utah, staff visited several other work-based learning programs in line with the mission of the Policy Academy on Scaling Work-Based Learning.

by Rachel Hirsch

Utah Lieutenant Governor Deidre Henderson, in partnership with Governor Spencer Cox, has been spearheading a new work-based learning (WBL) program intended to help adults looking to reenter the workforce after an extended absence. The Return Utah program focuses on engaging those that have been out of the workforce for two years or more in a paid internship experience coupled with short-term education and training. While many WBL programs focus on youth, young adults or workers interested in upskilling, this program is unique in its focus on the long term out-of-work. Utah has been a leading state team in the National Governors Association Policy Academy on Scaling Work-Based Learning, supported by the Siemens Foundation, since 2016. Most recently, Utah served as a mentor state to new states looking to learn from their journey to expand WBL statewide.

Staff from the NGA Center for Best Practices recently sat down with Lt. Gov. Henderson to discuss the Return Utah program and its goals.

“Removing barriers to opportunity and entry is something that I have been passionate about for a number of years,” said Lt. Gov. Henderson. “As a stay-at-home mom for 13 years, I have seen how difficult it is to be out of the workforce for a long time and then somehow get back in.”

The Stadler Rail accredited youth apprenticeship program allows apprentices to earn their associates degree while getting paid to train in advanced manufacturing.

During her time as a state senator, Lt. Gov. Henderson had a friend and mother who had taken time off work to focus on raising children reach out to her to ask if she could serve as an intern in her office. Due to a divorce, her friend now needed a job, and was having trouble finding one without recent relevant work experience on her resume. Lt. Gov. Henderson helped find her an internship, and this experience inspired her to seek additional ways she could provide similar opportunities for others.

During the pandemic, she was inspired to implement this model on a larger scale and discussed it with Gov. Cox, who agreed. He signed an executive order for state agencies to identify new ways to provide meaningful return-to-work opportunities, remove any impediments to providing these opportunities, and offer return-to-work opportunities whenever appropriate. The state then launched a pilot program with the second round of Learn and Work in Utah — a separate but related initiative that provides tuition assistance for short-term programs at postsecondary institutions for unemployed or underemployed individuals — in the summer of 2021. Lt. Gov. Henderson hosted her own “Returner” during this pilot period. The first full cohort will begin in January 2022. Learn and Work in Utah now provides additional incentives for programs and applicants who are returning to work after an extended absence.

Naturally, women who left the workforce for a time to raise children may be interested in this program, but it also is intended for people who for whatever reason – be it their own personal interest or a change of life circumstances – want or need to reenter the workforce. Furthermore, “making sure that we recognize that the pandemic did have a disproportionate effect on women and take steps to remedy that is important. This program isn’t going to solve everything, but it’s one tool in the toolbelt to help,” Lt. Gov. Henderson continued.

The Wasatch CAPS program, which provides juniors and seniors in high school with project-based experiences led by clients in business, health care, engineering and communications.

However, it’s not just women benefiting from Return Utah. Lt. Gov. Henderson says that the people who have participated in the pilot have been both men and women who have not been working for a variety of different reasons. Indeed, despite the abundance of job openings, people who have been out of the workforce for longer than six months are having an especially hard time finding jobs. Programs like Return Utah that specifically target these individuals and add recent, paid job experiences to their resume can give a boost to their ability to find more long-term work.

The response from business as the program gears up to launch a full cohort in January 2022 has been enthusiastic. “We’ve had dozens of businesses say that they want to do it as well,” relays Lt. Gov. Henderson. For example, Northrup Grumman is already hosting several Returners. “With the labor market so tight, the pool is shallow, and this helps [businesses] cast the net a bit wider to bring in some people that previously hadn’t been engaged,” says Lt. Gov. Henderson.

In Utah, the Governor and Lieutenant Governor run and are elected on the same ticket. This partnership has made it easier to work together on creating opportunities for Utahns. Says Lt. Gov. Henderson: “We definitely are a team and work closely together on a lot of things. He made it very clear to me that he sees this as a partnership of sorts. We bounce ideas off of each other and are very much in tandem.”

What’s next for the program? Lt. Gov. Henderson would love “for more businesses to participate, for there to be multiple cohorts of Returners starting at multiple times throughout the year. I hope we continue to work towards being the family-friendly state that we are. And beyond Utah, I would love to see this take off in other states.”

NGA visited the STEM Action Center, which leverages resources across education, industry, government and the community to bring STEM to students across the state. Pictured here is their makerspace and entrance mural which depicts STEM trailblazers throughout history.