Older, Experienced Workers Applying for Internships

By Kathy Gurchiek August 30, 2010

Don’t look now, but applicants to your organization’s internship program might include workers age 50 and older and persons with more than 10 years of experience, according to a CareerBuilder survey.

Twenty-three percent of 2,534 full-time hiring managers in the U.S. are seeing applications from experienced workers for paid and unpaid internships, according to the online survey conducted May 18-June 3, 2010.

The recession has redefined internships since 2008, according to Michael Erwin, senior career advisor for CareerBuilder.com. Internships used to be a way for a young adult to try out an industry and secure an entry-level notation on a resume. They have become “the foot in the door for people with experience” at a time when companies are still a little wary of bringing on full-time employees, Erwin observed.

In 2008, Vault Inc., which provides online career information and job listings, reported that it had seen at least a 10 percent increase in the number of employers using older interns and said it expected that number to grow.

Receiving internship applications from older workers “may be a little jarring for some people,” Erwin acknowledged, “but I don’t think they should be turned off. Those [older interns] can help you with training people, help with responsibilities you may have had to scale back on” and “could be a good fit to any internship program.”

Today’s interns typically handle tasks that produce results for the company’s overall goals

(73 percent), perform office support (52 percent), work with customers (35 percent), run errands (23 percent) and handle office maintenance (19 percent), the survey found. Twenty-seven percent of employers planned to hire interns for the remainder of 2010.

The internship can serve as an extended job interview—52 percent of companies are likely to hire interns as full-time, permanent employees.

Christy Burns, PHR, is a divorced mother with three children—8-year-old twins and a 10-year-old—who has an undergraduate degree in industrial engineering and manager-level experience in the airline industry. She worked in her field for 10 years before becoming a stay-at-home mother. She returned to school as a full-time student and expects to graduate in December 2010 with a master of science degree in organizational development and knowledge management.

She viewed an internship as a way to fill a “deadly” 10-year gap on her resume with “something current to illustrate that I’m employable.” She applied in December 2009 for an internship she learned about from her professor.

Despite his personal reference, she heard nothing from the company, which provides consultation about human capital management and effective organizational solutions. She reapplied in January 2010; still nothing. She discovered on Facebook that a classmate worked at the McLean, Va.-based company where she applied.

“I’m willing to work for free,” a frustrated Burns said she told the classmate, “because I just need resume material in order to get onto something else.”

Some interns are unpaid. Among surveyed employers who reported they use interns:

  • 7 percent do not pay them.
  • 5 percent have both paid and unpaid interns.
  • 14 percent pay interns.

Among employers who do pay:

  • 23 percent will pay $6 to just under $10 per hour.
  • 49 percent plan to pay interns anywhere from $10 to just under $25 per hour.
  • 5 percent will pay $25 or more per hour.
  • 1 percent will pay less than $6 per hour.

But a paid internship wasn’t a requirement for Burns. Like many older workers seeking an internship, she just wanted proof of a recent career-related position. It can lead to a full-time job at a time when nearly 7 million workers from January 2007 through December 2009 were displaced from jobs they held for at least three years. That’s nearly twice as many as were displaced during a period covering January 2005 through December 2007, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), released Aug. 26, 2010.

BLS defines displaced workers as people 20 years or older who lost or left jobs because their plant or company closed or moved, there was insufficient work for them to do, or their position or shift was abolished. Meanwhile, unemployment hovers at an average of 9.5 percent, although it’s higher in some regions of the United States and varies among ethnic and gender groups.

Burns’ classmate advised against offering free work and routed the internship application personally for her. No internship resulted. Instead, in August 2010 Burns landed a 20-hour-a-week job as a junior analyst paying $35 per hour.

She feels as if she’s starting her career from scratch, as if her prior experience and knowledge doesn’t count.

“I was a manager of strategic planning. I had a huge staff. … I don’t get invited to all the meetings.”

That’s OK, though, she said. The part-time job is just a step along the road toward a career as an organizational development consultant.

‘More Resourceful’

That older workers are seeking internships “really speaks to the resourcefulness of the job seekers out there, and the desperateness,” CareerBuilder’s Erwin said. “It’s sad that people have to resort to going to internships, but it’s great they’re taking the responsibility and taking the initiative.”

The survey didn’t differentiate among retirees and displaced workers, according to Erwin. However, hiring managers are not seeing internship applications from experienced workers who returned to college, according to Erwin, but from people “knowing they have to keep food on the table. … They’re just really resourceful in how to get a job and how to build their resume.”

The three industries that reported seeing the most internship applications from older workers: information technology (42 percent), retail (30 percent) and sales (29 percent).

Erwin sees two things reflected in those three industries: older workers looking for internships in IT to fill knowledge and skills gaps, and people trying to leverage their experience in retail and sales to land internships they hope will lead to a full-time gig.

“Experienced workers, more mature workers, are more resourceful than people who were younger and laid off,” Erwin noted. “They’re using every resource they can. They’re using online, they’re using classifieds, they’re using old-fashioned networking” and they’re using internships.

Also, older workers looking for a job tend to be more open to expanding the range of employers they apply to, according to Erwin.

“Historically, what we’ve found [is that] students over the last five years only went to industries they really wanted to work in and have been studying,” whereas older workers are “going to the industries they know are hiring. You’re going to see them leave their comfort zones.”

Trying to decide whether to go with a young or older intern can be challenging for an employer.

“They have to decide do they want somebody with more experience [or] do they want somebody who brings in fresh perspective?”

He thinks companies are going for a mix—using older interns to replace some of the intellectual capital they’ve lost and using young interns for their expertise in technology and social networking.

“Employers need to keep an open mind. They need to look at every resume that comes in. I don’t think they should be turned off by someone” with experience applying for an internship. However, “the employer and the mature and experienced worker have to have realistic goals from the beginning,” Erwin said. “If you don’t, the internship may not be the best fit for someone with that much experience.”

That means HR has to have uncomfortable conversations and be very candid that the older intern might be asked to serve in a support role and work on projects that may be below the applicant’s experience level, Erwin pointed out.

“That is something you have to address in the beginning.”

There have been recent moves around the U.S. to expand career opportunities for older workers.

Civic Ventures,a San Francisco-based think tank devoted to Baby Boomer work and aging issues encourages encore careers—work that has a social impact for those in the middle of their careers.

Civic Ventures CEO and founder Marc Freedman testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance on July 15, 2010, about the need to help older workers make successful job transitions, including “experiential placements, such as internships or student teaching assignments.”

Phyllis Segal, vice president for research at Civic Ventures, noted that the number of experienced workers seeking internships is “a sad commentary on a very tight job market.

“In these economic times, one has to be creative about finding and transitioning to new work,” she said. “Applying for internships or fellowships as a route to transition to a new type of work is a time-honored strategy, so it doesn’t surprise me there are older adults applying for internships. It saddens me; it doesn’t surprise me.”

She advises HR to put the same care into hiring interns—or fellowship applicants or volunteers—as they would with any hiring decision, including “paying close attention to the job description, the match between the candidate and the job, to onboarding,” she said.

“Workplaces are littered with unsuccessful internships. A lot of organizations don’t recognize that interns should be treated with the same care as employees. They need to be supervised. They should be a value-add to the organization.”

Whether an organization uses volunteers, internships or fellowships, “the basics of a good HR practice are the same, and they are the same as the basics for hiring someone for the job.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kathy.gurchiek@shrm.org.

Related Article:

... And You May Want to Hire Them as Interns, SHRM Templates and Tools, March 3, 2008

Hiring Older Interns, HR Magazine, June 2005



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