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Mature interns emerge
[August 09, 2009]

Mature interns emerge

Aug 09, 2009 (The Columbian - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Bev Muncaster has worked in finance since she was 17, but after being laid off and returning to school to earn her degree, she started at the bottom of the corporate ladder as an unpaid intern. Unlike the typical 20-something college student or recent graduate tackling an internship, Muncaster, 49, juggled her six-week Citybank Home Loan Center stint, which ended in late July, on top of being a single mother to two teenagers, caring for an elderly parent and working as a server at Chevy's to pay the mortgage on her Yacolt home.

But the sacrifices were worth it, Muncaster said. The internship made it possible for her to work toward her bachelor's degree in finance from Washington State University Vancouver while gaining valuable on-the-job experience.

"In the classroom, we touched on mortgages, but I didn't know how to read a credit report before starting my internship. I'm learning about different types of loans and how to put a home loan file together from start to finish," she said partway into her internship.

With Clark County's unemployment rate more than doubling in June 2009 over 2008 to reach 12.6 percent, which represents the most recent figures available, more midcareer professionals such as Muncaster are taking unpaid or low-paying internships as a way to stay busy between jobs, explore a new field and make headway with potential future employers.

It's a trend seen across the nation, said Holly Bull, president of the Princeton, N.J.-based Center for Interim Programs, which matches people with internships and other short-term opportunities.

Since the center was founded in 1980, it's fielded one or two queries a year from mature workers wanting internships. With the current economic downturn, such interest is on the rise.

"Now we're getting more inquiries from people who are older wanting to take some time and explore," Bull said. "They may be looking at retraining. They may be wanting to step back and figure out what it is they really love to do. Sometimes people go for internships because they're out of work and can't find a job." Even unpaid internships can offer significant benefits, Bull says. Internships look good on resumes and are a way to build references and a portfolio of work samples.

And sometimes they lead to a permanent, paying position. That was the case for Muncaster, who will be a full-time mortgage banker at Citybank starting in September.

"As soon as someone gets their foot in the door, and you can do that through an internship, the people in that company know who you are and how you work. So when there's an opening, why wouldn't they hire you over an unknown? It's a no-brainer," Bull said.

Some sacrifice required But for the midcareer intern, these opportunities come at a cost, literally and figuratively.

With age often comes responsibility. Most internships last at least three months, and that could create a financial burden for people with families to feed and bills to pay, Bull said.

There's also a good chance that midcareer interns will find themselves reporting to people younger and less experienced, which can be an ego blow. The best antidote, Muncaster says, is focusing on long-term goals.

"You just have to get over it," she said. "Don't think about age. Think about how exciting a new career can be." But just as jobs are scarce, so too are internships. A recent study conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that companies were offering nearly 21 percent fewer internships this year than in 2008. So with more people vying for fewer internships, it pays to take initiative.

"I had to create my own internship basically," Muncaster said. She landed her position by reaching out to Cayla Kersanty, a Citybank Home Loan Center mortgage loan officer she met years ago at a credit union and later reconnected with at Chevy's.

Citybank Home Loan Center wasn't looking for interns, but asking paid off for Muncaster. And the arrangement worked well for Citybank too, said Kersanty, Muncaster's supervisor at the Salmon Creek home loan center.

"I think that definitely having someone who's already experienced a bit of life brings a lot to the table," Kersanty said.

Muncaster earned WSUV credits for her internship, but not all midcareer interns are students. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act sets six criteria for training or educational programs that internships must meet. For one, the internship must be for the benefit of the intern. School credits are a tangible benefit, but they aren't the only way to fulfill that criterion.

The law also stipulates that interns must be closely supervised, and some employers might not think they have the necessary time.

"People are already so stressed, doing the job of two or three people, that they can't imagine taking on an intern. They don't see the tremendous benefit interns provide," said Matthew Zinman, executive director and founder of the Internship Institute, a Newtown, Pa.-based nonprofit internship advocacy organization.

But rather than drain resources, Zinman says, internship programs allow employers to establish a talented pipeline of potential employees and get an influx of fresh ideas, creativity and passion -- "which is contagious in its effect on morale." Muncaster feels fortunate that Kersanty and Citybank Home Loan Center understood that, and didn't view her as a charge to be baby-sat.

"They appreciate the fact that you're coming from a different angle, that you've had job experience and learned things in the classroom. It can be a win-win," she said.

Mary Ann Albright:, 360-735-4507.

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