With nearly 13 percent of the workforce still unemployed or underemployed, many workers are doing anything to stay marketable, even if it means taking a free or low-paid internship. While moving from management to intern can humble the ego and put a kink in the bank account, it could be a vital step in gaining the experience and contacts needed to make a career change or get back into the workforce after a break. Adding new responsibilities to your resume from an adult internship also can make you a more attractive job candidate.
Here's how to survive a midcareer internship.
To intern or not to intern
The first step in winning the internship game is figuring out if you really need one, says Carol Fishman Cohen, co-author of "Back on the Career Track," a book that helps women transition back into the workforce after taking time off for child rearing. That means developing a clear view of your career goals, figuring out what skills you'll need to get there and examining the opportunity costs of an internship.
"If you are currently unemployed and you're looking to return to work, you could go through a period of three months or six months where you are not bringing in any income ... or you can take a three-month or six-month period to pursue an internship, which ideally is paid," Cohen says. "You could use that same amount of time to be in an experience that will make you a more compelling candidate."
Perks of interning
The silver lining to internships is that many are part time and frequently come with flexible scheduling that allows older interns to maintain family responsibilities and apply for full-time gigs.
If you're considering an internship, Judith Lansky, president of Lansky Career Consultants in Chicago, recommends researching the industry you're trying to break into and determining what skills and experience you'll need to be successful.
"The intern (should) do as much informational interviewing as possible so they know, 'What is it I need to learn?'" she says.
Just any internship isn't enough. For older workers who are relying on an internship to propel them to a better paying job, selecting one that offers strong networking opportunities and that will supplement their current skill set is crucial.
"Be really picky about the type of internship you have," says Marlene Quiram, a 46-year-old former stay-at-home mom who's using recently completed internships with Kawasaki Motors and Silicon Valley tech firm D-Link to break into the public relations field. "Make sure that you don't end up being the intern who's just there to grab coffee or do copy stuff.
"I tried to be as picky as I could, and it's really tough."
Other creative solutions
In addition to investigating adult internship opportunities, Fishman Cohen recommends also checking out temp work, contract consultant positions, executive in residence jobs and programs like Goldman Sachs' Returnship initiative, which is designed to help midcareer professionals return to the workforce. Companies such as AboutOne, a firm that produces online organizational tools and apps, offer internship-like positions specifically for moms heading back to the workforce. A list of return-to-work programs is also available at iRelaunch.com, which Fishman Cohen co-founded.
If you can't find an internship with your dream company, suggest one, Fishman Cohen adds. If you interview for a full-time job and sense that the hiring manager is interested but not ready to offer permanent work, offering to do an internship or internship-like arrangement such as a contract consulting role could get your foot in the door.
"That's a situation that hiring managers sometimes haven't considered," Fishman Cohen says. "From their perspective, it's a little bit less risky. They can see you in action."
Advantage of experience
If you need help selling yourself to a hiring manager, remind them that there are advantages to older interns.
"I've had the experience of being in some of my superiors' shoes, and it helps to know where they're coming from," says Gabe Izsak, a 34-year-old attorney who completed a year-long internship with the Chicago-based public relations firm KemperLesnik to transition into the sports marketing field. "Having been in a more senior position prior, I can see how to better tailor what I'm doing in order to make us both work at a more efficient level."
Package it right
Ideally, an internship will directly lead to a job with that employer, but even if it doesn't, walk away with some good references, job experience and, if possible, a title other than "intern" on your resume, Lansky says.
"You see 'internship' and you think 'child'; not really child, but young person, doesn't know much yet," she explains. "As always, it's about marketing. Without lying about it, you want to dress it up to be as responsible and impressive as possible."
If you're part of a formal internship program, Fishman Cohen says to list it as such on your resume. However, if your role was less formal and your internship supervisor is OK with it, listing a generic title such as "contract role" along with the department you interned in lets future employers know that your work was temporary without letting on that the salary wasn't as high as that of your previous jobs. Also remember to stress in future job interviews that the work you did while interning was a strategic part of your overall career plan.
An internship, says Fishman Cohen, "is an excellent way to demonstrate to an employer how serious you are about wanting to return to work," she says. "But a lot of it is how you tell the story."
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