Internships Aren't Just for Grads Anymore
Marie Stroughter has been in and out of the work force during the past decade, working at a nonprofit, managing a retail store, homeschooling her three children and creating a blog and internet radio show as a hobby.
She saw a Craigslist ad for a social media internship at a San Francisco firm and figured it was a long shot but applied anyway. After beating out the college-age competition, Stroughter recently completed the six-week unpaid internship and has been hired as the company's full-time media director.
While internships have traditionally been the territory of twentysomething students and recent grads, a growing number of older workers are finding that these temporary positions can be ideal vehicles for facilitating a career change.
"Internships absolutely give you the opportunity to reinvent yourself," says Stroughter, 46. "They allow you to exercise your work ethic and skill set, while contributing in meaningful ways. At the same time, you get valuable industry experience."
With more experienced workers out of work and looking for new opportunities, some hiring managers seem to have a new openness toward older applicants. Jeff Rozovics, a CPA whose Park Ridge, Ill.-based accounting firm has always hired college-age interns, is considering a middle-aged intern after running into an old college friend who is in the process of changing careers to work in accounting and finance. "I'm actually meeting with him to spend a partial day showing him our business," Rozovics says. "This is the first time I've ever considered hiring an older intern."
Benefits to Business
Internships offer more experienced workers a foot in the door of a new opportunity and, in turn, these older interns bring value to the organizations that give them a chance. While internships for older workers remain hard to come by at Fortune 500 firms, many small businesses and nonprofits are realizing the benefits that over-40 workers can bring them, says Lavie Margolin, a New York job search advisor.
Nikki Barjon, owner of The R Agency, a branding and public relations firm in Atlanta, says hiring older talent "is a secret weapon" to her company's growth.
"I am on an aggressive push to shift the look and feel of my intern team to be filled with more senior talent," she says. That's because Barjon finds that older interns, with more life experience behind them, are better equipped for problem solving than their younger counterparts.
"Because [older interns] are well-rounded and many times are well-traveled, they are more comfortable having and initiating conversations about anything topical," Barjon says. "The art of mastering a conversation is a characteristic I find painfully lacking in the younger generation. Older interns excel at things that seem small, like drafting a memo on the fly, while younger interns may often know simple sentence structuring but not the importance of tone, brevity and flow."
Barjon recently hired one of her over-40 interns, Rhonda Harris, following a six-month internship, to serve as general manager of her firm.
Making an Internship Work After 40
Working as an intern later in life often comes with challenges. First, many internships offer meager or no paychecks. "We pay our interns, but not all firms do," says Rozovics. "This could be a problem for an older intern who needs cash flow to live."
But many interns are more daunted by their own lack of confidence than an absence of steady income. "The greatest challenge, honestly, was my own self-doubt," Stroughter says about her internship. "I kept telling myself that as a mid-life worker, I was probably competing with people fresh out of college [with more knowledge of] new technologies, who would be more attractive to firms. I did have years of life experience doing [similar] work, but I kept going back to the 'mommy track' in my head and buying into the myth that my experience and work ethic might not [be competitive.]"
For Rhonda Harris, who already owned a management consulting practice when she became an intern-turned-general-manager at The R Agency, "being an older intern was challenging from a time and responsibility management standpoint," she says. "I have many more responsibilities to maintain professionally and personally than the younger interns, which made managing my time, the internship, my company and personal life a true testament to prioritizing what is important to me."
Advice for Would-Be Interns
But if you want to make a career change, the challenges of working as an intern after 40 don't compare to the benefits. "Don't disregard the value of internships, paid or unpaid," Harris says. "The time and energy you invest in yourself is invaluable. Don't feel intimated by your age, but use your age, skills and experience as the springboard to propel you to the next step."
To find the right opportunity, focus on the type of companies where you would want to eventually work. "Finding an internship can seem more intimidating than it actually is," Margolin says. "Pursuing internships through the major job boards can be fruitless, as those companies are expecting only college or graduate students to apply. Focus on your industry, and contact companies directly to pitch them on an internship. Look for small to midsize businesses or nonprofits that have a department in which you are qualified to work."
Rather than risk an ongoing unpaid gig, negotiate upfront how many hours you will work to complete the internship. Margolin recommends between 150 and 500 hours.
Before taking the position, discuss your daily on-the-job tasks. "In every job and internship, one has to perform some grunt work, but make sure that it is not what you will be spending the majority of your time on," Margolin says. "On an internship, about 70 percent of the work should directly relate to your field of training, and 30 percent could be grunt work."
Finally, don't consider your internship a failure if you don't receive a job offer at the conclusion; go in without expectations and you may be pleasantly surprised later. "Many times I have seen professionals with minimal experience, education level and current skills, who would have received little to no consideration from a company if they had applied directly for an open vacancy," Margolin says. "And then they were hired by that very same company as a result of demonstrating their knowledge, experience, skills and professionalism in an internship."
SecondAct contributor Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance journalist who writes regularly about career and workplace issues.