SAN JOSE, Calif. — A commercial pilot with more than 20 years of work experience, Jagpal Mandaher saw work dry up shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He decided a career change was in order, and in his late 30s he did something usually associated with college students: He took an internship.
The Santa Clara, Calif., resident, now 44, held a low-paying intern's position with Sensitel Inc., a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based software company, for about 10 months. He worked in all areas of the company's business, including finance and sales calls. Now employed at Logitech in a finance role, he says the internship "set me up for this job."
Not only did he get his first taste of a white-collar job, but he gained insight into what part of the field most interested him.
"I actually learned a lot," Mandaher said. "The internship helped me realize I felt more comfortable in a financial analyst role than I would have felt in accounting."
With unemployment still high, mid- to late-career adults are increasingly turning to internships — paid and unpaid — or are doing "career volunteerism" to fill in gaps between jobs, learn new skills and network. These workers say the low-paid or unpaid work keeps their minds active and gives them something to talk about when they land job interviews.
Although there are no statistics available, a perusal of more than 500 internships recently advertised on Craigslist reveals that while many were for students, some specifically sought out professionals with more than a few years of experience. These positions are often unpaid, but those that did pay usually offered a stipend or salary that was at least a little higher than minimum wage.
Career experts say there are few downsides to working an internship or volunteer position to learn skills if you can make ends meet in the meantime.
"It's great if you can economically afford to do it," said Hilary Romanoff, a career counselor at the Bay Area Career Center in San Francisco.
Romanoff holds career counseling groups at the Bay Area Career Center and says the topic of mid-career internships comes up frequently these days. Applicants are getting "creative," she adds, sometimes shadowing workers in another field or asking to help in an office for a few hours a week to gain new skills to put on a resume.
Mid-career internships can be a good path for anyone interested in a new field or jumping back into the workforce after time off for whatever reason, including layoffs, said Heather R. Huhman, author of Lies, Damned Lies and Internships.
"People these days don't see the market the same way they used to," she said. "An internship is not seen as a lesser position anymore. It's seen as an investment in your future career."
For employers, mid-career professionals are attractive because they've likely already proven that they're reliable, can work well in an office setting and can provide some level of expertise, even if he or she is not an expert in the field.
For-profit companies aren't the only ones willing to take on mid-career interns.
After Jim Dean of San Ramon, Calif., was laid off from his information technology management job a year ago, he didn't just want to apply for IT job after IT job. He wanted to cast a wider net. So he decided to go back to work, even if he wasn't paid.
Dean turned to the Volunteer Center of the East Bay, which set him up as a software trainer helping other unemployed San Francisco Bay area residents learn how to use LinkedIn and JibberJobber websites.
The 61-year-old now spreads his time between looking for work and actually working, perfecting new training skills so he can, hopefully, get a similar position in the future.
"Being unemployed, that experience is so difficult," he said. "It's depressing. It's demoralizing. It challenges your self-worth."
Working, even in a volunteer capacity, has brightened his outlook. "I tell people I am no longer unemployed. I am just doing whatever I can to prepare for my next position. If I never get a job because of it, I still really believe I am better off because it gives me the positive attitude."
Toni Littlestone, a veteran career counselor in Berkeley, Calif., said many older adults like Dean are basically doing internships. But in the nonprofit sector it's called "career volunteerism."
"They go in for a minimum of 15 to 20 hours per week and act like a real worker and receive assignments and are involved in real work," she said. These volunteer positions are also flexible but are not paid, she says. If a volunteer ends up landing a job mid assignment, the efforts are still appreciated.