An internship has long been a milestone for college students and recent graduates looking to get experience and make contacts. But laid-off or job-hopping baby boomers are also taking these low or unpaid positions to transition into new gigs. It can be difficult for older workers to be back at the bottom rung after spending a few decades with more responsibility and clout. Here's how to make the most of a midcareer internship experience.
Create your own opportunities. Many internships require that the participant receive college credit for the experience, but some internship programs are open to people of all ages. Approximately 8 to 10 percent of Washington Internship Program participants are midcareer or later, according to Linda Bayer, executive director of the program. "While the young people are nervous about how they will do in their life, older people are concerned about if they still have the abilities they had for most of their careers," Bayer says. "You always wonder what your life would have been like if you ever took the other fork in the road, but it's not immutable. You can try out another field." If you can't find an internship open to your age group, try making your pitch to employers you are interested in working for. Many internships are ad hoc arrangements made by a supervisor and an intern. "You need to seek out opportunities and define a project or role that matches your skills," says James Walker, author of Work Wanted: Protect Your Retirement Plans in Uncertain Times. "If you can show that performing the role will save the organization money or bring in new money, you'll have an easier sell."
Update your skills. After a layoff, it's important to continue to make new contacts and keep your skills up to date. "An internship will give you structure and a place to go and will prevent you from becoming depressed about not working," says Nancy Schlossberg, an emeritus professor of the University of Maryland and author of Revitalizing Retirement: Reshaping Your Identity, Relationships, and Purpose. "The best way to find that next job is to get yourself an internship in a work situation—and you never know where those contacts might lead." Schlossberg, who has set up more than 100 internships for her former students, recommends scheduling an internship for three days a week and continuing to job search the other two days. "For people who have doubts about whether they should leap into their new careers, it's a great way for people to get hands-on experience trying something," says Faye Gorn, 56, a systems analyst from Staten Island, N.Y., who is considering a second career as a chocolate maker. She did a two-day intensive internship in April with a chocolatier in Portland, Ore. "I wanted to get a peek into the day-to-day operations and management," she says.
Try something new. It's useful to test out a new career field before you spend a lot of time and money retraining for it. "An internship grants you the opportunity to determine whether you are capable of doing the work and whether you desire to do the work," says Anthony Gualtieri, a museum specialist and internship coordinator at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum, who will have two interns over age 40 this summer. "I call them visiting professionals when they are that age," he says. Glenn Havelock did a two-day Vocation Vacations internship in May with a travel writer in Fort Collins, Colo., after being laid off from a software sales job in Basking Ridge, N.J., in March. "Since I was laid off, it's a great time to go ahead and try something new," he says. The experience cost Havelock $949 plus travel expenses, a price Havelock says was worth it to learn how to set up a website, get a book published, and take and sell travel photos. "I don't think there's any better way to try out what you think you are going to like and not have to sink half your savings into it," he says. Vocation Vacations, a company that matches customers with "mini internships" in fields such as winemaker, dog day care owner, and sports announcer, has seen a 25 percent spike in unemployed customers over the past nine months, according to company founder Brian Kurth, author of Test-Drive Your Dream Job: A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding and Creating the Work You Love. The average customer is age 40, but people as old as 80 have tested out new careers, and about 25 percent of the vacationers have successfully transitioned into their desired career or are actively working toward it by writing a business plan or getting a new degree. "If it wasn't your dream job and your rose-colored glasses have been removed, then that reality check is really valuable, too," Kurth says.
Accept your new role. After 20 or more years in the workforce, it can be difficult to downshift to a junior position with fewer responsibilities. "It feels to many older workers as if their authority is being undermined and that they are not as successful as they should be or as they have been. It's kind of scary to older people," says Schlossberg. "The experience needs to be reframed that it's a wonderful opportunity to learn from and teach the younger people." But not everyone is comfortable taking on a smaller role. Martha Finney, president and CEO of Engagement Journeys and author of Rebound: A Proven Plan for Starting Over After Job Loss, cautions that internships aren't for all baby boomers. "You want to make sure that you won't be treated as a junior member and if you are treated as a junior member that it won't damage your self esteem," she says. When you do have a job interview later, be prepared to explain why an internship is at the top of your high-powered résumé. "You need to be able to tell the story of how this internship is part of your strategic plan," Finney says.
Transition to a paying job. Of course, many interns hope this experience will help them land a new paying job. "The most valuable part of the internship is networking with the other interns," says Gualtieri, who found his current position at the Smithsonian through a person he met while volunteering in Washington, D.C. The contacts that an internship, consulting, or volunteer experience provides are invaluable. Nigel Ball, 51, a former marketing executive for Hewlett-Packard, knew he wanted to shift into a second career working for a nonprofit, but initially he had some difficulty getting hired. "I thought, as a 26-year senior manager at Hewlett-Packard, there was going to be a line at the door to hire me, but there was clearly a learning curve to go through and a degree of suspicion in the nonprofit world about people coming over from the for-profit world who thought they had all the answers." Then Ball signed up for a Silicon Valley Encore Fellowship, a new program that offers a $25,000 stipend to experienced retired employees interested in six- or 12-month assignments at nonprofits focused on education and environmental improvement. The project is managed by Civic Ventures, a think tank on boomers, and funded by Hewlett-Packard and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. After interviewing with three nonprofits, Ball chose to begin an internship with Resource Area for Teaching (RAFT) in January, an organization that provides support to San Francisco Bay Area teachers. "If you are transitioning from for-profit to nonprofit, you have to check your ego at the door, particularly if you come from a senior position," says Ball. But after just five months interning part time at RAFT, Ball was offered a paid position. He will become RAFT's executive director of marketing this week. "There's no way I would be where I am now in a nonprofit without this fellowship experience," he says.