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Adult internships and returnships help the over-40 crowd get back to work

A few years ago, Sara Harnish signed on to become a “strategic volunteer” in an office within the Harvard medical and research system. Interested in learning more about the inner-workings of the day-to-day operations and getting real-world experience, Harnish pounced at the chance and learned as much as she could for the short time she was there.

A little over a year later, her hard work paid off, and she gained full-time employment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School. She couldn’t have been prouder.

© 2014 Warner Bros.
Think you know who's being interviewed in this photo? Don't be so sure. An increasing number of middle-aged job hopefuls are flooding the market and some end up working with teams and supervisors that are half their age. In the movie 'The Intern,' Robert De Niro plays a 70-year-old intern working with a much younger boss, portrayed by Anne Hathaway.

While this scenario probably sounds familiar for, say, a high school or college student, Harnish isn’t a “typical” case. For starters, she was in her late 40s when she volunteered. And, she landed her current gig (what she calls “the best job in my career”) after taking an employment hiatus for seven years to raise her family.

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Returning to work after a gap (or when middle aged) certainly presents its challenges. In today’s competitive landscape, the absence of traditional “employment” is often considered the kiss of death for career aspirations.

But the tide is turning. Companies have come around to the notion that skilled workers come in all shapes, sizes and ages. And one very real solution that creates a “best of both worlds” bridge for companies and job seekers like Harnish are internships and returnships.

“These are a great vehicle for people returning to work,” said Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO of iRelaunch, an organization dedicated to assisting people with re-entry into the workforce. “The word ‘internship’ is just a label, but it really covers any kind of short-term, non-binding work arrangement.”

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There are many reasons for taking time away. Often, raising a family, caring for an elderly or sick relative, or needing one’s own medical leave are common cases. Another shared experience: When the hiatus is over, getting back in the game can be overwhelming.

After tracking return-to-work programs in 2008, Fishman Cohen noticed that internship or “returnship” opportunities for middle-aged adults were gaining steam. The stepping stone to a career was especially being touted in the financial services and science, technology engineering and math (STEM) sectors — with a focus on women.

“I started to realize that the internship was being used increasingly and successfully for employers to engage with people returning to work after taking a break,” she said. Her findings inspired her to start iRelaunch and the ‘Return to Work’ conference, which brought an impressive 22 companies and 600 prospective applicants together last year.

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In order to minimize anxiety for its client base, iRelaunch does some of the heavy lifting, giving qualified hopefuls access to companies like Goldman Sachs, MetLife, General Motors and GE.

According to Karen Horting, CEO and executive director of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), which boasts its own "STEM Re-entry Task Force," companies in the STEM sector make deliberate moves to recruit women who are looking to return to work. While STEM is very niche specific, Horting suggests that anyone looking should link up with organizations and professional associations to get the ball rolling.

And, above all else, “don’t discount the idea of being the ‘40-year-old intern,’” she said. “It’s a great way to get back out there and try out an employer. Areas you were interested in five years ago may be different than where you are now.”

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When 55-year-old Sue Brose looks back on her own re-entry trajectory, she chalks a lot of it up to being lucky. Brose left the workforce behind to raise her family, but as her children got older, she came to the conclusion that it was time to jump back into working outside the home again — and met a few unforeseen brick walls.

“One of the hardest things was that I had recruiters courting me at the height of my game,” she said. Flash forward a few years later, where, “I remember calling a few, saying I was ready to go back to work, and the position I was looking for, and one recruiter asked if I 'still had it.'”

Brose didn’t quit and through savvy and research, she landed a return-to-work internship with now-defunct dessert maker Sara Lee. She now works full-time for the iconic Morton Salt. Brose intends to pay it forward for other women considering taking the plunge, and offered up some sage advice from her own experience.

“Ask yourself: can your ego handle doing grunt work to get (your) foot in the door,” she said. “People younger than you have the job that you just sat down in, can your ego handle that?”

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