Take two

Robert Chambers went from being a car salesman to starting a nonprofit that provides low-interest loans and fuel-efficient cars to the rural poor living in New Hampshire.

He’s one of a growing number of older adults who have embarked on an “encore” career, choosing work that matters in the second half of life. Often, these workers pursue not just a personal passion, but also the passion to give back and help solve problems in their communities.

“Machines can’t teach children and help the elderly,” said Phyllis Segal, vice president for Civic Ventures, a San Francisco nonprofit that promotes programs and research to develop ways an aging workforce can contribute to positive social change. “This is a question of a source of human talent.”

Nationwide, 6-10 percent of adults age 44 to 70 are pursuing encore careers, says a recent MetLife Foundation/Civic Ventures survey. Often, they make their midlife switch with the help of an internship. While the term intern brings to mind a young energetic worker who is wrapping up college and gaining some valuable real world experience, internships have become a route to career change for older workers, too.

Civic Ventures is developing a pilot fellows program in the Silicon Valley to target retired or soon-to-be retired corporate employees and place them in part-time or full-time social purpose internships in area nonprofits.

“They’ll do useful work for the nonprofit, but it also gives the employee an opportunity to explore nonprofit work potentially for their next stage of work,” Segal said.

Even for older adults who are simply looking to change career paths, an internship is a great way to sample a new field and possibly land a job.

“The shortest path to a full-time job is to get an offer from an internship employer,” said Steve Pollock, president of WetFeet Inc., a San Francisco publisher of career advice.

For those in unpaid internships, a fast track to full-time paid work would be more desirable. But Pollack said most internships today are paid. And even though encore interns have been in the working world much longer than their college-age counterparts, for some, the pay or benefits are necessary.

“Even for those for whom compensation is not necessary, pay is a sort of proxy for significance,” said Segal. “It’s a way of recognizing the seriousness of what you’re doing.”

Most employers appreciate the value of older adult interns. Segal points to a program in New York called ReServe, which has been recognized with Civic Ventures’

Breakthrough Award. People age 50 and older commit to work about 15 hours a week for six to 12 months in nonprofits and city agencies, for which they receive a stipend of $10 an hour.

“Employers who were hiring ReServists liked it and wanted more,” she said.

A 2005 survey from career information company Vault Inc. in New York estimated a 10 percent increase over 10 years in employers’ use of older interns.

In the early 1990s, the increase may have been due to corporate cutbacks that forced some baby boomers to switch careers. As the economy improved, many made the switch voluntarily, choosing to gain new skills and refocus their work lives at the same time.

With a shaky economy, some older adults may feel the pull to help others who are less advantaged. Still others may lose their jobs and be forced into a career change.

An internship can help smooth the way for both types of encore careerists.

There’s value to employers when older adults take on internship roles. A more mature intern with serious work ethic, experience at cooperating and a pool of knowledge can even serve as a mentor for others. The opportunity to give back or to perform more fulfilling work in later years often appeals to the intern.

Some employers caution older interns to remember that they may be reporting to a boss who is younger. They also need to remember to stick to the project at hand.

Pollock said most internships have evolved from being “grunt work.” But since many older interns have college degrees, extensive work experience and even management experience, it might take some effort to transform from teacher to learner.

Regardless of the pay – which may be quite a bit lower than the intern’s last position – the internship is an investment, much like college or vocational training was in younger years. “This is a transitional investment,” said Segal.

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