Hiring Older Interns

By William Atkinson Jun 1, 2005
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HR Magazine, June 2005 HR Agenda: Employment & Staffing

With career-switching on the rise, your internship applicants might be more experienced than youd expect.

In a recent survey of more than 2,500 people looking for work, Right Management Consultants found that 56 percent were thinking of making a significant career change. Among the survey’s more unusual findings, however, was that the workers who expressed the most interest in setting a new direction for their careers were those ages 56 to 60.

A common way for older workers to make a career transition is through internships, which allow them to switch gears, sample an industry and learn firsthand about a job in that industry in a low-risk fashion.

“For example, we find some bankers who want to get into the entertainment industry, and internships allow them to sample this industry without completely committing themselves,” notes Mark Oldman, president of Vault Inc., a New York company that provides online career information and job listings.

Employers should be aware of this trend, which appears to be here to stay.

“Over the last 10 years, based on surveys we have done, we estimate a 10 percent or more increase in employers using older interns, and we are not seeing any signs of decrease,” reports Oldman. “The trend toward companies using older interns is continuing to grow.”

There are several reasons for the trend, says Doug Matthews, executive vice president at Right Management, a Philadelphia-based career transition consulting firm. For example, some industries such as banking and communications are undergoing consolidations, which leaves workers in those industries with fewer jobs to choose from.

In addition, Matthews says, many baby boomers are taking early retirement offers and now can afford to take internships in fields they want to explore. And in a labor market where good candidates are hard to find, he says, employers are becoming more open to candidates from all demographic categories. “Companies are more interested in older people who have a lot of experience.”

Employers are more readily accepting the idea of more-experienced interns, Oldman agrees.

Economic Factors

The rising use of internships by older workers dates to the early 1990s, when the economy faltered, layoffs increased and many workers—including seasoned professionals—were willing to accept internships to get their foot in the door of a field or industry in which they lacked experience. Generally they hoped their internships would lead to regular employment.

Although the economy has shown signs of improving, the trend has not reversed. Ironically, while financial insecurity drove the first wave of older interns, financial security is largely motivating the second wave. “Now that the economy is kicking back in, more people are gaining confidence to move on to new careers,” says Yves J.C. Lermusiaux, president of iLogos Research, a division of Taleo, an enterprise staffing solutions company in San Francisco.

“Even though the economy has been growing, people aren’t necessarily returning to the jobs or industries where they spent their careers to that point,” Oldman states. “Many of them are soul-searching and wondering what other types of careers and industries might ‘fire their passions.’ ”

For example, Vault’s online resources are used by a lot of experienced workers who are interested in internships in the arts and entertainment field, Oldman says. They are people who started out in conventional jobs and then, after achieving some financial security, started looking for careers that they would find more creative and satisfying. “In sum, investment banking isn’t known for attracting older interns,” Oldman says. “However, a lot of older investment bankers are interning in radio and TV stations, as well as newspapers and magazines.”

Internship Examples

One internship program that openly welcomes workers of all ages is offered by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The oldest of the Smithsonian’s more than 30 interns is 65. Many interns take part in scientific or historical research, learn what is needed to become a museum professional, or sharpen their administrative skills. Some work with political history collections and carry out library and archival tasks. While some Smithsonian interns come from museums or related fields, many others retire from their careers and decide to embark on a new one. “As such, they go into an academic program and then eventually intern with us,” says Tracie Spinale, the institution’s internship coordinator.

Spinale adds that about 20 percent of the Smithsonian interns are older interns and almost all of those older interns are working on a second career.

Most of the interns hope they will get employment—either a contract position with the Smithsonian or with a museum in another city. “While there is no guarantee of employment, the skills they learn here are looked upon favorably in the museum community,” Spinale adds.

One of the Smithsonian’s interns is Janet “Sunni” Morgan, who retired from a public school system after 33 years as a speech and language pathologist.

A student at Montgomery College in Montgomery County, Md., Morgan is studying art. “I have plans to begin a second career in the art field,” she says.

The Smithsonian internship provided her with the opportunity to work directly with one of the museum’s curators. “After the semester internship, he invited me to stay on for two more semesters. There was no way I wanted to leave, because I was learning everything I wanted to learn about putting up exhibits,” Morgan says.

Harper’s magazine in New York is another employer that is open to hiring experienced interns. The Harper’s web site welcomes traditional-age interns as well as those who “use the program as an introduction to publishing after having pursued careers elsewhere.”

In fact, Benjamin Austen, the associate editor who is also in charge of the intern program, is a former Harper’s intern himself. For seven years prior to entering the publishing industry, he was an English teacher. “I wanted to break into publishing, but I didn’t want to go to journalism school,” he explains. “Harper’s was of great interest to me, and when I found out about their intern program, I applied.” He realized he would learn about reporting and writing and also start to get to know some of the people on the inside. He ended up being hired full time.

Pros and Cons

Some employers are hesitant to embrace the older-interns trend because they see younger interns as better candidates for regular employment. Oldman says some employers see younger workers as more likely to “inject a youthful energy into an organization.” And he adds that he suspects some employers gravitate toward younger interns because “it’s often easier to ‘push them around.’ ”

Spinale puts it another way: “Older interns often have their own ideas about how things should be done, while younger ones [can be] more flexible and open.”

Despite such perceived obstacles, older interns should be recognized for what they can bring to a workplace, experts say. “Older interns usually don’t need as much guidance,” Spinale says. “They tend to be more proactive.” Older interns, she adds, also often have a stronger sense of personal responsibility than younger interns and are not afraid to communicate their ideas or concerns.

Austen notes that older interns “have an intellectual maturity and an accumulation of knowledge to do a good job” in the magazine’s demanding environment. “They do serious work.”

Older interns can provide perspective, seasoning and wisdom, according to Oldman. “In some of these organizations, older interns serve as de facto mentors,” he adds. They also are likely to be comfortable in hierarchical environments, and they know how to get along with other people and build relationships that foster cooperation.

Last but not least, older interns are more apt to view the experience as an integral part of a varied career, according to Austen. Younger workers may view the internship as merely a steppingstone to another job, he adds.

When employers get to know their older interns, Lermusiaux says, they realize that these interns are usually really interested in doing the work and are highly motivated, rather than just experimenting or looking for any job that might be available.

Managing Older Interns

Some managers may be uncomfortable taking on more-experienced interns, Spinale says, because the managers are worried about the potential awkwardness of managing someone older than they are. However, in her experience, “this doesn’t turn out to be a problem. The relationships tend to be very comfortable.”

In Austen’s experience, it is not necessary to manage older and younger interns differently. “If we have chosen them, regardless of age, it is because they are able to do the job well,” he states.

The only challenge, according to Oldman, is that experienced interns, used to having jobs requiring more responsibility, may have expectations of greater responsibility than employers are willing or able to provide to an intern, at least until they have proved themselves.

“Managing [any] intern effectively involves guiding them in the early stages, then providing more responsibilities as they prove themselves,” he states.

Spinale recommends managing the expectations of older interns up front. The Smithsonian, she says, creates project descriptions similar to job descriptions. “We explain, ‘This is the project. This is what you will be doing. This is how what you will be doing fits into the overall project.’ ”

Recruiting and Hiring

While specifying an upper age limit with a job posting is almost always illegal, companies seeking traditional-age interns get around that by listing their intern openings via channels that will most likely result in younger candidates—for example, on college career center web sites.

Even though students can come in all ages, to widen your pool of interns to include 30-somethings and beyond, you will most likely need to look beyond college sites. Oldman recommends putting the word out about your internships in the same way you would advertise other jobs: via traditional advertising, online advertising, word of mouth, online HR bulletin boards and directories.

If you find a good older intern, does it make sense to hire that person? Definitely, Oldman says. “People are living longer and wanting to work longer, so more employers are taking the long view,” he explains.

In today’s “knowledge economy,” Lermusiaux points out, the right person for the job is the right person for the job, regardless of age.

William Atkinson is a freelance business writer based in Carterville, Ill.

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Gen Xers as Interns
Source: Inside Business

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