Categorized | Job Hunting

Students and Boomers Compete for Internships

Posted on 21 November 2009

Like countless summer interns before her, Bonnie Ulmer stuffs envelopes, jots down messages and signs for packages. But you won’t find her hanging out at the mall after work — she’d rather be doting on her grandson.

Ms. Ulmer, 56, signed on to be an intern at consulting firm Triad Communication in Washington, working alongside a college student who listens to hip-hop and frets about life after graduation. Laid off and looking for something to do, she jumped at the grunt-work opportunity. “It’s all fun money for me.”

This summer, the regular crop of interns has some interlopers in its midst: the over-30 crowd. From small businesses and restaurants to large health-care companies and public-relations firms, eager workplace veterans are lining up for a shot at the bottom rung of the ladder for little or no pay, just like those college kids. And companies are happy to let them in the door. While only 5% of internships were open to folks past their college years in 1995, that number has climbed to 20% today, according to career-information company Vault Inc.

Some of these aging interns don’t have much choice, with jobs scarce in a down economy. Others say they’re using internships as a convenient way to try something different, take a break from the job track or just dabble. In New York, there’s a 35-year-old ex-VP playing pastry chef at an upscale restaurant. A Chicago TV station had a lawyer running errands for the boss.

But not all of these graying apprentices are winning friends, of course. For out-of-work veterans, the notion of companies beefing up their ranks with experienced workers in short-term internships can be infuriating. Then there are the young interns forced to work side-by-side with condescending boomers. Jonathan Krause, a 22-year-old law student, found himself teamed with an older intern at a government office. The woman not only patronized him, but snorted whenever she heard him making after-work plans to meet his friends at a bar. “At first I was irritated, then I tried to provoke her,” he says.

Internships used to be just for kids, of course. Then came the dot-com boom of the late ’90s, when jobs were plentiful and labor was scarce, and some employers were forced to go outside the traditional intern mold to fill their slots. Now that the economy has slowed, companies from public relations giant Fleishman-Hillard to law firm Cleary Gottlieb are welcoming older interns. And why not? It’s a way to get better help for less, and without a long-term commitment. McKesson Corp., a health-care information company, has five over-30 interns out of a total of 40 at one of its units.

Thrill of the Kitchen

That’s all just fine with dabblers like Marissa Rothkopf Bates, who is starting a six-week internship as a pastry chef’s apprentice at a tony New York seafood restaurant. When she was laid off from her job as a vice president at Oxygen Media, she quickly signed up for cooking school and a follow-up “externship.” After following a chef around for a day and whipping up chocolate treats, she exalted in the “adrenaline thrill” of the kitchen. But once she’s done garnishing desserts, she figures she’ll look for another media job: “I don’t actually see myself becoming a chef.”

Michael Feldman, a 34-year-old former software entrepreneur, actually converted his internship into a cushy new job. After seeing his business go down the tubes last year, Mr. Feldman talked a friend into bringing him on as an intern at his online food-delivery service, arguing there was no downside since he would only get paid on commission. He then negotiated flexible hours to accommodate his morning triathlon-training schedule. “Sometimes I’ll roll in the door at noon,” he says.

While nobody’s expecting a gigantic rush of middle-aged interns, the summer workplace may well continue to get more mature. For starters, rules about workplace equality make it tougher for employers to consider age when hiring. Earlier this year, one Massachusetts company was forced to revisit its internship policy after rejecting an applicant for being too old (the would-be intern complained to state authorities). Plus, many employers like having older interns around. At McKesson’s information solutions unit, senior vice president Terry Geraghty says it’s a no-brainer to bring summer help with years of experience into the fold.

‘Stop the World’

Still, these May-September internships can have drawbacks for both sides. Experts say some boomers are more likely to worry about what comes next rather than the internship itself. Others may think it’s fun to try something new, but should make sure they aren’t just trying to avoid the commitment of a real job. Says Lynn Friedman, a clinical psychologist and workplace consultant in Bethesda, Md.: “I see a lot of ‘Stop the world, I want to get off.’”

Even if interns are excited going in, they may find the glamour fades quickly when they see just how little money they are getting. Alex Livingston moved to Los Angeles to serve as the unpaid producer for “Wide Awake in Nothing,” a film-student friend’s movie about a group of rebellious factory workers. He had a blast working 15-hour days for seven weeks straight, but then he jumped at a paying job — as a software engineer.

Starting Over

Companies and organizations vary widely regarding their approach to employing older interns. Below, a sampling of some of the programs:

Company Number of
Over-30 Interns
Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton
New York
Six of 80 Current Wall Street job cuts may echo those of the early ’90s, which led to a bumper crop of investment-bankers-turned-lawyers doing internships.
Edelman Public Relations Worldwide
New York
None of 25 Program is for college students. Veterans would be considered for full-time or freelance positions, says Richard Edelman, president.
McKesson Information Solutions
Five of 40 Weak job market has brought a surge of over-30 intern applicants, says Terry Geraghty, senior vice president.
North Country AmeriCorps
Gorham, N.H.
Six of 10 Social-service program wants older folks with experience in other fields to set example for younger interns.
Silicon Graphics
Mountain View, Calif.
One of 45 Program focuses on college students to identify potential full-time employees.
Smithsonian Institutions
Washington, D.C.
40 of 415 Scholars struggling to find academic posts have contibuted to a doubling in number of over-30 interns in the past five years, says internship coordinator Tracie Spinale.

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