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Rise of the 40-something intern

Some mid-career professionals are moving forward by starting over.

By Amy FarnsworthStaff Writer / June 26, 2009

Inside the Manhattan offices of wowOwow.com (The Women on the Web) Randi Bernfeld, left, mentors mid-career intern Patty Fernandez.

Mary Knox Merrill/ Staff

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While she was a student at the University of Arizona, Patty Fernandez never had a chance to intern. But two decades later, she’s doing just that.

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Laid off from her copy-editing job last summer at Standard & Poor’s and seeing her freelance work dwindle, Ms. Fernandez applied for an unpaid internship at the website start-up company wowOwow.com, an online community for women. “I was really attracted by the possibilities and being able to do something that I didn’t necessarily have experience [in],” she says of the Internet-publishing venture.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times. The internship role, once reserved for college students and entry-level candidates, is attracting mid-career professionals eager to retool their skills. With 7 million jobs lost since the beginning of the recession, internships are becoming a sought-after way to reenter the job market.

“There are a lot of adults who are out of work, a lot of adults who want to transition into second careers – and an internship is the best way to get a foot in the door and ... learn about a new industry,” says Lauren Berger, founder of InternQueen.com, a website devoted to college internships.

An internship allowed Linda Franklin to blaze a new career path after 22 years on Wall Street. At age 50, Ms. Franklin applied for an internship at New York’s public radio station WNYC. For the next two years, she lived off her savings while she worked – unpaid – recording sound bites at press conferences and from pedestrians on city streets. The experience, at first, was a hit to her ego.

“You’re running around in snow, rain, cold, and I would be standing on a subway platform saying ‘What am I doing here? I used to send people out to do errands for me,’ ” says Franklin, who formerly ran a trading department for an investment firm. “You really have to get over that.”

The training developed her writing skills and, eventually, allowed her to launch a website for mature women – TheRealCougarWoman.com – host her own Internet talk-radio show, and write a book to be released in the fall.

As the recession has deepened, the need for nontraditional internships has gone up.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, for example, professionals looking to reenter the science and technology fields can enroll in the Career Reengineering Program, a 10-month part-time curriculum that requires students to take a class in the fall and complete an internship in the spring. Over the past year, inquiries about the three-year-old program have increased 50 percent, says Dawna Levenson, associate director of the program.

Though most internships cater to the college crowd, Ms. Berger is slowly starting to see the intern role shift to include adults. Now, rather than turning away résumés she receives from adults, she’s passing them along to companies offering “alternative internships.”
Among them:

•Last fall, Sara Lee Corp. in Downers Grove, Ill., launched a “returnship” program and hired 10 adults for three to six months.

•New York banking firm Goldman Sachs last year ran an eight-week pilot internship program from September to November, offering 11 women a chance to return to the finance industry.

•Since April, Babyboomers.TV, a website start-up company featuring articles geared toward baby boomers, has hired four mid-career interns, offering each a $100 weekly stipend.