We typically associate internships with young people embarking on their careers, using unpaid work experience to get a foothold in their chosen industry. However a 2016 report by the Commonwealth Department of Employment found that a quarter of Australians over 30 years of age have done unpaid work experience in the past five years.
The median length of an internship in Australia is 45 days and this is usually unpaid, which is enough to deter many middle-aged people with financial responsibilities. But professional development coach Michelle Landy says it is more often a lack of confidence that stops women from taking the leap.
“Middle-aged women are often skilled and have great potential and capacity, but their confidence lets them down, especially when they have been out of the workplace for numerous years with children,” says Landy.
“Internships can help bridge that gap. They give women a chance to trust their skills.” Landy says women need to be clear about the purpose of an internship. “For an internship to work, women need to be very clear that they are trying to up-skill and stretch their learning in a short amount of time. Sometimes it helps to do the internship at a different workplace to the one in which you ultimately want a position.”
So what is it like to go back to square one when you’re in your 40s? We speak to three women who did just that.
LORNA HENDRY, 50
Interned with a Melbourne-based children’s publisher when she was 45.
Lorna Hendry. Photo: Supplied
I’d been a graphic designer and studio artist for years, and when I was 40 my husband and I quit our jobs, took our kids out of school and travelled around Australia for three years.
When we got back I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to take on another full-time job in a design studio. Graphic design is a young person’s game, especially when you work in corporate communications, with its long hours.
I wanted to write a book about our trip and I was contemplating a career change so I enrolled in RMIT’s Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing. It was the best thing I ever could have done. Towards the end of the course, when I was 45, there was an opportunity to do an internship a few days a week for four weeks at the children’s publisher, Wild Dog Books.
I was nervous that I was going to be really out of my depth. I’ve got kids but I didn’t really know anything about publishing except for what we had been taught in the course. Although it was a great course and had a great reputation, I wasn’t sure if what I’d been taught was actually relevant or going to be useful in a real workplace. I went into the internship wanting an understanding of how publishing worked and to see if I could find a place in it.
The internship was annoying initially because the publisher was keen to use my design and art skills, which I was trying to leave behind. I was getting really grumpy because I felt that was not what I was there for. I whinged to the staff member who organised the internship and she encouraged me to stick it out. Within a week the publisher asked me if I’d like to write a book for them about penguins.
And who wouldn’t want to do that? How good are penguins! When I finished my internship they kept asking me to write books. Now I’ve written 14 books for them and this year I’m shortlisted for a Children’s Book Council of Australia award.
The internship opened up this opportunity where I got to practise something new – writing. But I also got to draw on my design skills because I choose the photos and do the layouts, and I can also draw on my original background in science. It seems like it’s all come together – and I’m 50!
I was running a freelance business while I was studying. One advantage of being older when you do an internship is that often you can afford to allocate the time to it. You accept that there’s no financial gain, it’s an experiential one
It’s also an emotional investment. It can feel very risky. I did feel a bit old but it was a real lesson in allowing doors to open and walking through without knowing what’s going to be on the other side. Sometimes I think we forget that we bring everything we have with us to new experiences and that is so valuable.
JOHANNE GALLAGHER, 47
Interning with City of Sydney
Johanne Gallagher. Photo: Supplied
I was born in Sydney but grew up in Ireland. I recently moved back to Sydney after living in Scandinavia for 11 years. I was a life coach in Norway and ran my own eco cafe. I could see that sustainability is a key factor both in life and business and I wanted to do something bigger and more meaningful with my life.
In 2013, I graduated from a Swedish university with a masters degree in sustainability but I had a hard time finding work in Sweden and Norway because English is my first language and because I’m not a citizen of either of those countries.
I would have preferred to go into a paid job, but sustainability is a small niche in Australia and I know that it is necessary to have some practical and relevant work experience to get a paid job. I was also coming from another country, and all my education and experience is from the other side of the world. After 18 months of trying to find a job in Sydney, I really felt like, “What’s happening here? I have to get my foot in the door. What can I do?”
I knew that local council is often the strongest leverage point for change, and I really wanted to work for the City of Sydney. I’d say everybody in the council’s sustainability department must have heard my name over the last two years because I’ve applied for multiple jobs there!
Eventually a member of the council’s higher-management team rang and asked to meet me for coffee. He said, “If an internship came up, would you be willing to take it?” And I said, “Yes, of course.” Once I got the offer, I jumped on it because I thought it would lead to the break I need.
I’m doing the internship part-time for three months, coming in on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. I am still applying for paid work but I’d much rather be here than sitting at home.
My role is to review the entertainment sector with regards to sustainability. It ties in with the city’s Sustainable Sydney 2030 initiative and the 2016 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to reduce our carbon footprint and emissions.
The vision for Sydney in 2030 is to be an exemplar city, so we’re looking across every business and every sector and trying to be as efficient as possible. We want to be as green, global and connected as possible by 2030.
In sustainability, having a vision is normal and you “back cast” from where you want to be. So you have your vision about where you want to be and you know where you are today, and then you plan the steps in between. That’s also what I’m doing, with my life, and the internship is one of the steps.
RENEE CATT, 44
Interning with the Mi Mediation Centre, Bentleigh East, Melbourne
Renee Catt. Photo: Supplied
I had been through a pretty shitty divorce and wrote a blog called Divorce Go To Girl, but it wasn’t until my lawyer asked if I had ever thought about getting into mediation that I thought I could be a family dispute resolution practitioner. It’s basically a step down from being a lawyer. My lawyer saw my passion for helping other people through divorce and I was totally over working in the travel industry.
I’m not qualified to do much, so I wondered if I could really make a career change. But my lawyer encouraged me to study to become a mediator and undertake an internship.
I had a few hesitations before I started. You’re dealing with people’s lives and their families and that’s full on. I had the inner doubt of “what if I’m no good at this”, and studying the law isn’t the lightest topic.
Sometimes studying does my head in. I’m like, “Bloody hell! What does all that mean?” I’ve gone from working in travel, where I knew the code for every capital city in the world, to talking about family law.
I do feel like a fish out of water, but I’m okay with that. It never feels like work. And I like the fact I’m setting a good example for my kids, encouraging them to follow their passion. I love mediation because it focuses on the couple and educating them about the things they need to know. It’s meaningful work.
When I was going through my divorce I don’t remember my mediator telling me half the stuff that I should have known, so I was really picky about where I wanted to be an intern.
I’d been in touch with the centre through my blog and I knew it was well regarded within the industry. I’ve been doing the internship for three months, two or three days a week, as well as studying. I’m a single mum, so I’m also juggling my two kids. It was important to me that there was flexibility. The Centre is so accommodating in that respect – if I’m sick, or the kids are sick, they are really supportive.
I make money from coaching through my blog and I also offer consultations for people who are considering a separation but are not sure what to do.
It’s worth giving an internship a shot. Sometimes you just have to have to take that leap of faith that it’ll all work out. For me, it’s like a big reinvention and that’s fantastic.
My marriage ended when I was turning 40 and I thought, “Why not make a fresh start?” It’s so easy to stay in your comfort zone, but nothing changes when you’re in that space. We spend so much time at work. Why not absolutely love what you do?