... And You May Want To Hire Them as Interns

By William Atkinson Mar 3, 2008
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Rethink your idea of intern candidates. Reason: More and more older workers are seeking internship positions, and their experience may give them a leg up on their competition. Mostly, these older workers are seeking positions to find a new direction for their careers, says a survey of more than 2,500 people by Right Management Consultants, a Philadelphia-based career transition firm. The survey found that while 56 percent were thinking of making a significant career change, those ages 56 to 60 were the most interested.

"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 the trend toward companies using older interns is continuing to grow," says Mark Oldman, president of Vault Inc., a New York company that provides online career information and job listings. 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. Typically, 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. "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."

For some, industry consolidations, such as banking and communications, are fueling the quest for change, says Doug Matthews, executive vice president at Right Management. In addition, many baby boomers are taking early retirement offers, which allow them to afford internships in fields they want to explore. And in a labor market where good candidates are hard to find, Matthews says employers are becoming more open to candidates from all demographic categories.

The internship program offered by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., openly welcomes workers of all ages who 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. Some interns come from museums or related fields, while others retired from former careers and decide to embark on a new one.

About 20 percent of the program's interns are older, and almost all are working on a second career, says Tracie Spinale, the institution's internship coordinator. Older interns, she says, often have a stronger sense of personal responsibility than younger interns and are not afraid to communicate their ideas or concerns. And they usually don't need much guidance. "They tend to be more proactive."

Harper's magazine in New York also hires experienced interns and uses its web site to welcome young interns as well as those who "use the program as an introduction to publishing after having pursued careers elsewhere." Benjamin Austen, the associate editor who also heads up the intern program, is a former English teacher who used Harper's internship program to break into publishing.

Older interns can provide perspective, seasoning and wisdom, says 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. Older interns also are more apt to view the experience as an integral part of a varied career, while younger workers may view the internship as merely a stepping-stone to another job.

One challenge for managers is that experienced interns who are 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 prove themselves. "Managing [any] intern effectively involves guiding them in the early stages, then providing more responsibilities as they prove themselves," Oldman says. Spinale recommends managing the expectations of older interns up front. At the Smithsonian, project descriptions similar to job descriptions are created, and interns are told how their activities will fit into the overall project.

Managers who want to widen their pools of interns to include 30-somethings and beyond should look beyond traditional intern venues such as college web sites and spread the word through traditional advertising, online advertising, word of mouth, online HR bulletin boards and directories.

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

Terms of Use: © 2005 Society for Human Resource Management. Members of SHRM are authorized to distribute copies, excerpts or e-mails of this information for educational purposes internally within their organizations. No other republication or external use is allowed without permission of SHRM. The information is not intended to serve as a substitute for legal advice.

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