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On Monday, NPQ printed a newswire asking if anyone had noticed a trend in 40-year-olds doing internships as a way to make the career change from the for-profit to the nonprofit world, or to bridge the gap to gain entry into the nonprofit job market. It was very interesting to me, because my own career has very much benefited from exactly this kind of dynamic.
I basically opted to give up a career as an environmental lawyer with a top-tier law firm to get married and have a child. A decade later, my marriage unraveled and I needed a job. I didn’t want to practice law anymore, because quite frankly being a single mom at a high-powered law firm in the current economic climate, given all of the changes in legal practice, was completely unappealing.
I hadn’t been completely idle during my time as a mom; I had gotten heavily involved in a living history re-enactment group with over 30,000 members worldwide, and rose within the ranks of the all-volunteer organization to become a national officer handling member recruitment and retention. When I went back to the job market, this was the experience I chose to leverage into a paying job with a local arts nonprofit in 2011. (This was a job before my current one.)
I do see these internships as a trend. I’m working with a friend who, after going through a bad period as her pet-sitting franchise business went under, is now trying to develop résumé experience so that she can find a paying job in the nonprofit sector. I’ve brought her on board as an intern, and I’m helping her get skills and craft a résumé as she continues her job search.
Successfully going from being an unemployed mom out of the workforce to being employed as a nonprofit staffer and working one’s way up in a new career isn’t easy. I almost don’t believe I did it, but I also know that some critical factors worked for me to make my job search and career change successful. I was confident, and refused to treat my life as an apology, even though I’d been out of the traditional workforce for so long. But I wasn’t arrogant—I was very realistic about what jobs I was actually qualified to do and made sure that potential employers understood that I knew I had as much to learn as I had to offer. I used a “skills-based” resume, which highlighted the things I knew how to do, as opposed to the positions I’d held. I targeted a sector of the nonprofit world (associations and membership organizations) that was related to my volunteer work, and I networked vigorously. But the most important thing was the serious volunteer position I could point to that gave me experience and demonstrated my commitment to the new profession that I was moving toward.
What might make the over-40 intern trend disturbing is the idea that they are taking such low-prestige positions, and that just feels icky if you’ve worked so hard all your life. Some of this is also the standard-issue shock that comes to those in the for-profit world once they realize that the nonprofit world has an entirely different compensation scale. Yes, people in this sector have lots of specialized knowledge, and Mister For-Profit Guy is not going to be able to just ride in and Save the Day™ to the sound of applause from his profoundly impressed and grateful nonprofit colleagues. That’s just not how this world works. There are also plenty of organizations out there who see interns as “cheap labor” and have no intention of developing paid positions, and that’s abusive.
All that said, there is value in the practice of volunteering your way into a job if you have your wits about you and are implementing this as part of a larger job-seeking plan. On the other hand, taking an internship with anyone who offers just to have someplace to go during the day besides the unemployment office will probably lead to ending up disappointed and permanently underemployed.
My two farthings, as someone who’s been there.
Liz Georges is the Communications Coordinator for the Cheetah Conservation Fund, and is responsible for managing communications and external relations activities for the leading organization in the world dedicated to saving the cheetah in the wild. In her spare time, she volunteers with the largest living-history organization in the world, training individuals in presentation techniques and communication skills to assist them in building stronger chapter organizations. She holds a juris doctor from Northwestern University School of Law and spent the early part of her career practicing environmental law and commercial litigation in Chicago and Washington, DC. She currently lives in Northern Virginia.