Rise of the 40-something intern

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

By , Staff Writer

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

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.

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“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.

Nonprofits are also offering internships to mid-career professionals, among them: Sightline Institute, a think tank in Seattle; Earthwatch Institute, an international nonprofit group with US offices in Maynard, Mass.; and the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C., which will host a mid-career professional in its internship program this summer.

Training programs are also gaining momentum. Civic Ventures, a San Francisco-based think tank focused on baby boomers, spearheaded an Encore Fellows pilot program in 2008 for experienced technology sector employees ages 50 and up. The goal is to train them for management positions in the nonprofit world.

Hiring interns is “a great way to test-drive somebody without investing huge salary benefits in them,” says Nancy Valene, content manager for Babyboomers.TV. The decision to pick mid-career professionals makes sense because of the nature of the website’s content, she adds.

The same can be said at wowOwow.com, where “executive interns,” all over the age of 40, work remotely from home and attend meetings in the New York office to learn about social networking, search engine optimization, and how to write and edit for the Web.

These women “are our demographic. They’ve been able to help us connect with our audience,” says Randi Bernfeld, senior editor at wowOwow.com.

Not all companies welcome adult interns with open arms. “A lot of companies ... don’t even want to consider the adults,” Berger says. Because most company policies require interns to receive college credit, adults are often disregarded. Another potential concern, she says, “is that [adults] are going to have a larger sense of entitlement and that they won’t want to do normal intern things or filing or doing very basic administrative tasks.”

Smaller, start-up companies seem more willing to take on experienced interns who can offer insight from their previous career path, Berger says.

When he applied for an internship at Babyboomers.TV, Aaron Grossman told his tale in his cover letter. Laid off from his market-research job in May 2008 and after “a dark period of job searching,” Mr. Grossman, 58, was ready to try something new.

His story made a lasting impression. Out of 100 applicants, he was selected to be one of four interns in April. Every day, Grossman works from his home office in New York, writing articles for the website. Interning, he says, has allowed him to pursue his passion – writing – full time.

But following his passion hasn’t been easy. Grossman, once the breadwinner of the family, faces an uncertain future while his wife works full time.

“It’s uncertain as to whether this is going to evolve into a full-time job,” he says. But he is trying to remain optimistic. At the completion of his internship, full-time positions will be offered to three of the four interns. He hopes to be one of them.

Interning has also been difficult for Fernandez. Though her husband works full time, and she is able to obtain free-lance work on the side, she says the unpaid work has been “a challenge” because New York City is so expensive. Still, she sees the internship as a way to boost her résumé.

“I just love the idea of being able to get an opportunity only students get,” she says. It’s an “opportunity to learn how to translate my print media skills into digital media skills. I really just see the upside.”

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