Experienced Workers Find Internships to Diversify Skills During a Layoff and Enhance Their Careers

Members of the Massachusetts Air National Guard’s 102nd Intelligence Wing attended the Business, Engineering & Technologies Job and Internship Fair at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Members of the Massachusetts Air National Guard’s 102nd Intelligence Wing attended the Business, Engineering & Technologies Job and Internship Fair at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth on Oct. 23, 2019. (Sgt. Thomas Swanson/U.S. Air National Guard photo)

Out of gainful employment, out of job offers and running out of savings, Scott Stevens of Portland, Oregon, has turned to a familiar strategy to gain experience and keep his skills fresh: the internship.

In spring 2009, Stevens, 35, took an internship on a sustainable tourism project for Travel Portland, a nonprofit destination marketing organization. In this role, he researches what it would take for an entire city to become sustainable and how best to market this initiative to the public.

His salary: Zero. Instead, the former information technology (IT) sales and marketing professional is doing the internship for the experience.

"I liked the idea of an internship as a way to keep busy and connected," he said. "The value to me is in learning something new."

With the economy in the doldrums, Stevens isn't the only experienced worker to go the internship route. Some, like Stevens, are using internships to build their resumes and gain experience during unemployment. Others are looking to enhance their professional knowledge or sample a new field ahead of a possible career change.

Keeping Busy, Building a New Network

For Stevens, whose wife earns a hefty salary in the biotech industry, the full-time internship is more than a way to get out of the house. It's also an opportunity to acquire new experience, network and keep his skills sharp.

After months of searching for a job in high-tech startups, Stevens looked for an internship or volunteer opportunity. He scoured Craigslist and online job boards and sent out feelers to people in his personal network.

Finally, a friend at Travel Portland agreed to give him a shot.

Under the current arrangement, Stevens usually reports to the office five days a week. Because he's not getting paid, he can come and go as he pleases -- and usually does.

When he's not working on the sustainable tourism project, Stevens is building new networks and trying to establish contacts in hospitality and tourism, where he hopes to land a marketing job eventually. While shrinking budgets probably means his internship won't turn into a full-time job, his boss has been actively assisting him in looking for something new.

"She is aware of my long-term goals and is happy to help me network," Stevens said. "She might not be able to hire me, but it's nice to know that she wants me to succeed."

Deepening Knowledge

In California's wine country, Eric Henson has experienced a different kind of internship: cellar rat.

Henson -- a sommelier at Santé, a restaurant at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa -- worked the 2008 harvest as an intern at Deerfield Ranch Winery in nearby Kenwood, California.

For the 2009 harvest, he's lining up a similar experience at another winery in Sonoma County. Henson finds these internships through his personal network.

For him, the internships are a way to learn more about his business and the product he sells.

"I've spent the last few years of my life studying wine and providing recommendations to customers," said Henson, 35. "Finally, it hit me. Other than tasting the stuff and reading about it, I didn't really know much about the process that went into making it."

The process, as Henson has learned, is laborious. During his three-month paid internship at Deerfield, Henson toiled over vats of wine, tending to fermenting grapes and analyzing and adding chemicals when necessary. As he worked, Henson gained a deeper appreciation for what winemakers actually do.

Perhaps the biggest challenge? The schedule.

During his time at Deerfield, Henson woke around 4 a.m. and arrived at the inn around 5 a.m. to prepare for that night's service, then moseyed on over to the winery. Work there began promptly at 8 a.m. and usually lasted until 4 p.m. He then worked his sommelier shift between 5 p.m. and midnight.

"It was tiring but very important in my quest to learn more," he said. "The way I look at it is that when you're doing something you love in a place you love to be, exhaustion doesn't seem to feel as bad."

Test-Driving a New Career

Another reason to embrace an internship as a grownup is to lay a foundation for a future career change. Such is the case with Lisa Tresmontan.

In early 2009, Tresmontan, 31, agreed to take a low-paying internship with Joshua Charles Catering in San Mateo, California. In this position, she works nights and weekends helping CEO Josh Feinbloom with everything from food preparation to event planning. In early 2009, Tresmontan oversaw every aspect of a customer's wedding reception; in June, she helped cater an entire weekend of festivities.

Tresmontan landed the internship through friends of friends in the catering industry. It helped that her mother works in the business as well.

While Tresmontan admits that moonlighting is a lot of work on top of her full-time job as associate sourcing manager for Pottery Barn, she said she wasn't ready to leap into the catering business without exploring it first.

"I wanted to make sure I liked it, and I've actually liked it more than I thought I would," she said. "Someday, when I'm ready, I can leave the corporate world behind me and commit full time to this new career."

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