Internships and Mentorships: Not Just for the Young Anymore

Internships and Mentorships: Not Just for the Young Anymore

At the Harvard Business Review, iRelaunch CEO Carol Fishman Cohen touts mid-career internships as a way to help older employees successfully re-enter the workforce after taking a career break:

Professional internships are emerging as a special category of progressive action for employers and a powerful return-to-work strategy for individuals. These programs create a formal pathway to employment for returning professionals at a time when they have historically been perceived as more difficult to hire. But these perceptions are changing, for good reason. Returning professional internships give employers the opportunity to connect with a talented group of professionals at a moment when their childcare, elder care or other career break responsibilities are reduced or over, and these candidates are ready to fully re-engage in the workforce. Plus, professional internship programs enable employers to increase the number of midlevel to senior-level women in their ranks, since women typically make up a majority of the internship pools.

On the surface, these programs probably mean little to employees who are just starting their careers. For recent graduates, a career break may be the furthest thing from your mind. But looking ahead, there’s no question that expected and unexpected reasons may well lead you to a career break. So, consider what a formal reentry program signals to employees. The employer is sending the message that it recognizes and accepts the reality that some of its employees’ career paths will include a break. For a talented young professional who might harbor some anxiety about how to balance work and the prospect of taking time away to provide childcare or elder care, it says “we understand.” “If a career break is in your future, we want to be your employer of choice when you return; we have a formal path back for you. You are not alone in the transition.”

This type of re-entry program is particularly valuable to mid-career women, who are more likely than men to take career breaks to raise children or care for elderly relatives (though that tide is slowly turning toward greater gender equality). Cohen’s iRelaunch is one of several companies working to help older professional women continue on their career paths in the tech sector, where they are seen as a key factor in filling the shortage of skilled employees.

Another script-flipping trend in the development of mid-career employees is the “reverse mentorship,” wherein young professionals are paired up with their elders in mentoring relationships wherein the master (i.e., the more experienced employee) becomes the learner. The CIPD’s Jo Faragher explains how these reverse mentorships work and why they are becoming more popular:

According to Professor Karl Moore from the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Canada, millennials’ desire for regular feedback has led to a growing interest in reverse mentoring, particularly in an age where four generations (boomers, gen X, gen Y and gen Z) are increasingly working alongside each other. “Millennials get technology in a way older employees don’t because it’s all they’ve ever known; they appreciate different working models and are accomplishment-based; they’re less focused on hierarchy. My students call me Karl, but I would never have called my professor by his first name,” he says. …

[W]hile reverse mentoring can help senior employees gain insight into emerging business models or ways of working, arguably its most successful use up to now has been in the transfer of digital knowledge. L’Oréal runs a formal reverse mentoring programme where senior managers are assigned digital mentors to help them “understand trends and tools in the digital world”, according to HR learning director Leah Jones. Interns have taught managers how to use Snapchat, while one co-ordinator ran a bite-sized workshop for the HR team on how to use social media. There has been an additional benefit in terms of how engaged and valued the younger cohort feels. “Our digital-savvy millennials who are nominated to be mentors also feel valued, recognised and empowered by being able to share their expertise with a senior leader and the wider business,” says Jones.

Building cross-generational relationships in the workplace seems to benefit the younger employees as well, Faragher adds, offering them insight into how the organization works at levels higher than their own and allowing them to absorb institutional knowledge from their older co-workers.