Testing the Waters with Internships
April 21, 2008
Testing the Waters With Internships
By ELIZABETH POPE
INTERNSHIPS, a rite of passage for job-hunting students, are attracting the attention of older adults who are eager to dip into new ventures, paid or not, before taking a full plunge.
Take Ruth Pittard, who retired from Davidson College and offered to intern at nonprofit groups in return for room and board. “I wanted to work with organizations that are changing the way the world thinks,” said Ms. Pittard, 61, a former assistant dean for community service at the college, which is in North Carolina.
Her applications to 15 organizations detailed advanced skills in volunteer management, career counseling, data systems, training and a willingness to stuff envelopes, if necessary. Only Giraffe Heroes Project, a nonprofit group on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, Wash., responded.
“Here was an experienced, knowledgeable professional; who wouldn’t grab her?” said Ann Medlock, who founded the project, which honors ordinary people “for sticking their necks out for the common good.”
For a month, Ms. Pittard helped with recruiting, fund-raising, staff training and updating records. Delighted with her experience, she returned later in the year for five more months, living again in the same borrowed cabin with no running water, owned by a Giraffe “hero.”
Adult internships emerged about 10 years ago as the concept of “golden years” retirement expanded to include paid work, volunteering or pursuing a life passion, said Mark Oldman, a co-founder of the career site Vault.com. The number of internships has risen for all ages, he added, while more older “nontraditional” students have gained access to school-arranged programs.
Businesses recognize that older interns can bring the experience and sophistication that younger people often lack, but the concept is still unusual enough that older adults might need to sell themselves, Mr. Oldman warned. “The danger is that someone will ding you because you’re overqualified,” he said. “You need to figure ways to neutralize those concerns in a conversation or cover letter.”
That is no surprise to Ms. Pittard, who said she was shocked that only one organization responded to her offer. “I thought people would be snapping me up,” she said. Ms. Medlock admitted she might not have welcomed Ms. Pittard if a mutual acquaintance had not called ahead to sing her praises.
“We’re a small organization where teamwork is precious, and you have to be careful of whom you bring on,” she said. “It’s not such a factor with a younger intern because you’re teaching them, but an older person might upset the apple cart.”
Many nonprofit groups and small businesses are not structured to accommodate an experienced adult, said Marc Freedman, chief executive of Civic Ventures, a San Francisco institution that focuses on expanding the social contributions of midlife and older adults. “They often don’t have a human resources department, so the intern’s folder just lands on the desk of an overwhelmed executive director,” he said.
This fall, Civic Ventures plans to start a paid-internship program to place certain retired Silicon Valley executives with nonprofit groups in the area.
In the program, financed by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, interns would earn $50,000 for a 9- to 12-month stint at organizations dealing with youth development, education and the environment.
Research has indicated that for older adults to succeed in transition, “it’s better to test the waters than to sit home evaluating your life with checklists and self-assessments,” said Tamara Erickson, the author of “Retire Retirement.” “It’s only through an iterative process of trying new things that you’ll find something that really works for you.”
Potential interns should be prepared to create their own opportunities, said Julie Lopp, a Santa Barbara, Calif., career consultant. She advises students in her workshop on internships to remodel existing ones unearthed from lists in libraries, bookstores, career centers and the Internet.
“Or take the inside-out approach,” she said. “You decide what your dream is and design an internship, then find a company or nonprofit that needs you. Just like a job hunt, you investigate an organization’s unmet needs, then find the right person to receive your proposal.”
To make the distinction between being an intern as opposed to a volunteer, Ms. Lopp advises submitting a bill for services rendered, marked “pro bono.”
Ms. Lopp said that internships usually involve short-term complex projects, while volunteering entails low-level routine tasks, or at the other extreme, serving on a board. For Annette McGarity, a 46-year-old computer consultant in Santa Cruz, Calif., volunteering morphed into a paid internship and more at the chamber of commerce. At first, she offered to handle some meeting and event planning, then added marketing to the mix as a five-hour-a-week unpaid intern.
“I had no experience in either field,” she said. “It was a creative outlet for me and a nice change from computers. It’s a small office, so I just started doing whatever was needed.”
The more she enjoyed working at the chamber of commerce, the less she liked running her computer business. After taking Ms. Lopp’s workshop, Ms. McGarity proposed an $18-an-hour, 18-hour-a-week internship at the office to do Web design and manage the content. When she started coordinating the chamber members’ trips to China, her hours ballooned.
“At that point, I said, why not hire me full time as a project director to handle technology and travel planning,” she said. In February, she led a tour of chamber members to China, her first visit to the country.
Internships can be a two-week vacation or even a weekend, and can also require a payment. Bill Moyer of Bonita Springs, Fla., a former investment industry executive, spent two days learning about voice-over narration from an actor. As a retirement gift, his wife had booked the session, which now costs $1,649, through VocationVacations, a Portland, Ore., company that arranges brief internships for people to try out their dream jobs.
“Years ago, some CBS sports guys told me I had a great bass voice for radio or TV,” Mr. Moyer said. “I’ve been intrigued with the idea ever since. This was hands-on — nine hours the first day and six hours the second, much of the time in front of a mike. I’m thrilled about learning something that’s totally new to me.”
On Whidbey Island, Ruth Pittard found a group of activists who shared her passion for the environment, social justice and spiritual fulfillment and inspired her to formulate her plans. She bought a used R.V. equipped with solar panels to travel to communities, sharing her green living tips.
“The internship moved my life onto a different path and opened up the world for me — that’s exactly what it was supposed to do,” she said.