Internships for all ages

Baby boomers can make great interns – and fill a need. But employers have yet to fully realize this.

At midlife, Heather Taylor wanted a career change. She took a course in radio production. She worked out an unpaid internship at a local station. Based on that experience, she now has her own show and loves it. Employers need to get ready for people such as Ms. Taylor.

Her talk show is directed at baby boomers and broadcasts weekly on WMET, in Washington, D.C. If she hasn't covered it already, a good topic might be internships for mid-career people and even retirees.

Many baby boomers are not like their parents, hanging in there in jobs they don't necessarily like until they retire at age 65. They reject the traditional definition of retirement, based on an old French word which means "to go off in seclusion." They're an active bunch, the most educated generation in American history, and they care about purpose and meaning in their work.

All of this should be of great interest to employers, who face worker shortages in many sectors, including key ones such as education and healthcare. More of them are realizing that internships for older people are a great way to tap enthusiasm and experience. But the attitude is still too prevalent that these opportunities to try out a field (and to be tried out) are just for young people.

That's limiting for all concerned, if not legally discriminatory.

In 1995, only 5 percent of internships were open to people past their college years. That had grown to 20 percent by 2002, according to Vault Inc., a career-services firm. Today, when checking internship directories, the magic words to look for are "open to college graduates of any age."

Unmistakable trends show an older workforce seeking new opportunities. One is that they're going back to school. Overall enrollment at colleges and universities is growing by only 2 to 3 percent each year, but adult-ed at at these schools is growing by 8 percent.

Surveys also show people intend to keep working after reaching typpical retirement age. A 2004 survey by AARP shows nearly 80 percent of baby boomers plan to keep working in paid jobs during traditional retirement years – some for financial reasons, some because they want to.

Many are also motived by altruism. Another AARP survey shows that helping others is "very important" to half the preretirees considering their next work phase. Many mention teaching.

That fits nicely with demand, but much more needs to be done to facilitate this pairing up. Personnel bridges are starting to be built in pockets around the US. In Washington, D.C., a group called Civic Ventures tries to match older Americans with opportunities for service. In Minneapolis, a nonprofit called Shift is helping midlifers transition to more meaningful work (Shift is now trying to encourage businesses to offer internships for older people). Several states are joining with employers to train soon-to-be retirees to become teachers.

But one easy way to tap the experience of older workers is for employers to simply expand their vision of internships – a traditional gateway to jobs. They can start marketing to this group, and connect with adult-ed programs. As for mid-lifers, why wait for such programs to become a fixture? Take Taylor's advice, and carpe diem.

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