Essays September 2010

Interns Over 40 for Healthcare

Neil Seeman

When former United States President Bill Clinton admitted to having an “improper relationship” with Monica Lewinsky, I learned more than I needed to know about the appropriate duties of an intern. Around the same time, Canada had its own intern scandal: internships at Canadian companies, government agencies and nonprofits were scarce, and the idea of apprentice labor (unpaid or low-paid and stipend-based) was considered unusual corporate practice.

Low-paid or unpaid internships for current University students and new grads are a launch pad to a paid, full-time position in a chosen career. Consider this recent Wall Street Journal interview with Jon Shafer, 25, now the lead designer for Civilization V, the wildly popular video game that tests a player’s aptitude for diplomacy and military conquest:

“Q: Internships at game companies are pretty hard to get. How did you land one?”

“A: I started out as a beta tester, playing new games for the company and asking if I could help out in any way. I kept pestering them until they finally acquiesced. They said they didn't have any full-time positions, but they could make a programming internship for me. That was in February 2005 … Eventually, they told me they were making expansions [add-on game scenarios] for Civilization IV, and they needed designers to make stuff. That’s when I got the job. I was hired on as a full-time designer after getting my degree.”
As journalist and author David Brooks observed in Bobos in Paradise, a college internship can be a pipeline to promising careers in the arts or business or government. Critical work and life experience can flow from very low-paid internships. Recent commentary has suggested that internships in the UK at elite companies favor the rich. This is probably as true in the UK as it is in Canada or the United States; I’ve been told by many wealthy families that this is a major decision-factor in opting for their son or daughter to attend an Ivy League school.

Therefore, equity and good common sense – in the midst of the global economy’s Great Stagnation – suggest that organizations large and small should vastly expand opportunities for interns. It also suggests – in a brutish economy that has hit older workers hard – that the very concept of an intern should not discriminate against people over 40 whose college days are long gone. This is precisely why the movement called “Interns over 40” is a grassroots phenomenon that every employer needs to know about. In just one year, says Bob Edelman of “Interns over 40,” the Website has received 500,000 unique visitors, from over 50 countries on any given day. Not bad for a simple blog without fancy design.

Nurturing a demand for interns over 40 – career switchers or displaced workers forced out of information professions from journalism to law to finance that are getting squeezed in the age of the Web – is of vital importance the world over. We especially need people in all areas of healthcare to meet the growing needs of a chronically ill population. Mr. Edelman told me in the United States alone there are more than 15 million unemployed or underemployed skilled workers who would jump at the opportunity to enter a growth industry like healthcare. 

Large health employers need to think in innovative ways to tackle the labor challenge in a time of financial challenge. They also need to think hard about avoiding ageism in the workplace. Older workers face biases in any job search. Redefining the concept of an intern to accommodate a critical mass of interns over 40 will help fight this stigma. Reverse mentorship in rising health sub-industries such as Online Medical Libraries and Health Informatics – which 20-somethings instinctively know more about than their older counterparts – will help struggling global financial markets expand the intellectual capital of the fast-changing information economy.

Weirdly, opportunities for unpaid interns of all ages are under attack in the United States at just the moment when they should be embraced. “There aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship [at a for-profit company] and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,” a Labor Department official recently told the New York Times.

As any manager in any organization will tell you, taking on an intern without pay is a fiction. A manager’s time spent training an intern is not free. That’s why internships are not ubiquitous; and that’s why lazy managers hire interns from Ivy League Schools … they cannot be bothered to conduct serious interviews for unpaid labor and they presume that Ivy League grads are a safe bet. That’s unfortunate. I’ve met lots of people over 40 hit by the financial downturn who would happily take a short-term internship, unpaid or low-paid, if it offered them valuable experience.

Says Mr. Edelman of Interns Over 40: “Interns Over 40 was started because I saw a lot of people my age who were unemployed, underemployed, and they had been extremely successful in their careers … I travelled around the country for a few months stopping in coffee shops around the United States meeting a lot of people who were trying to understand what their next career was whose industries had been devastated and they were being forced into looking at new careers.”
Healthcare employers large and small have every reason to welcome them.

About the Author

Neil Seeman is Director of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell at Massey College. He is co-author of three health books. His next book is XXL: Obesity and the Limits of Shame (forthcoming, Centre for Public Management, University of Toronto).



Neil Seeman wrote:

Posted 2010/09/13 at 11:46 AM EDT

An addendum: The Wall Street Journal reported Monday Sep. 13 that recruiters overwhelmingly favor strong state public colleges (above elite private colleges like the Ivies) for new hires and internships. GE focuses on 40 key schools to hire 2,200 summer interns; over 80% of new graduate hires come this intern pool. The belief that only the wealthy kids snag internships appears to be demonstrably false. As reported in the survey, the new budget cutbacks by corporate recruiters (i.e. streamlining hiring budgets) may favor local state schools over faraway private colleges.


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