The 40-Year-Old Intern Revisited

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Internships have become something of a rite of passage in the hyper-competitive job market — and not just for those fresh out of school.

Older workers returning to the workforce or making significant career changes are increasingly exploring internships as a way to gain experience, sharpen skills, or get a foothold in an organization.

Internship opportunities may be particularly compelling for women, with more than a third of highly qualified women taking an extended break from careers to raise children. A Center for Work Life Policy study found 73% percent of those women trying to return to the workforce have trouble finding a job and become frustrated with their job searches.

The internship trend was highlighted recently in a much-talked-about Harvard Business Review article titled “The 40-Year-Old Intern” which touted the benefits of “returnships,” or internship-like temporary stints for older workers. Returnship is a term that was trademarked by Goldman Sachs, a leading global investment banking, securities and investment management firm. 

Returnships have sparked some heated debate with proponents saying the option offers a sensible path to acquire new skills and experience that can lead to full-time employment. Critics meanwhile, caution that internships for older workers are a way for some companies to get some free or inexpensive help without having to offer benefits – or a job when an internship ends.

Yet, controversy aside, internships may be a wise way – or the only viable option — to re-enter the workforce or carve out a new career. Marci Alboher, author of One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success was quoted in an article in The Fiscal Times touting internships as the best way to make a career transition, no matter what your age.

Meanwhile, an AARP article also highlighted the benefits of returnships, and offered some tips to landing one of these gigs. Among the suggestions:

  • research existing employers that offer returnship programs
  • tap your network to unearth any internship opportunities
  • mine job boards for internships — “Search under the terms temp work, contract work, special projects, externships and fellowships. Some specialized boards search for and serve re-launching workers whose circumstances match yours,” the article states.

As the job market becomes increasingly competitive and the need to learn and update skills intensifies, internship-like options are expected to rise. Writing in the New York Times, Pamela Mitchell, founder of the Reinvention Institute and author of “The 10 Laws of Career Reinvention: Essential Survival Skills for Any Economy, suggests that internships should be expanded to include both younger and older workers, but that “executive internships” should be tailored specifically for baby boomers to hone their skills but also share their experience and expertise.

Internships can last from a few weeks to several months. It is up to each job seeker to determine if taking an internship is worth the payoff of enhanced skills, more experience and potentially, a full-time job or new career.

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