The 40-Year-Old Intern: Carol Fishman Cohen at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)

Carol Fishman Cohen

Carol Fishman Cohen – TRANSCRIPT

People returning to work after a career break: I call them relaunchers. These are people who have taken career breaks for elder care, for childcare reasons, pursuing a personal interest, or a personal health issue.

Closely related are career transitioners of all kinds: veterans, military spouses, retirees coming out of retirement, or repatriating expats. Returning to work after a career break is hard because of a disconnect between the employers and the relaunchers. Employers can view hiring people with a gap on their résumé as a high-risk proposition, and individuals on career break can have doubts about their abilities to relaunch their careers, especially if they’ve been out for a long time. This disconnect is a problem that I’m trying to help solve. Now, successful relaunchers are everywhere and in every field.

This is Sami Kafala. He’s a nuclear physicist in the UK who took a five-year career break to be home with his five children. The Singapore press recently wrote about nurses returning to work after long career breaks. And speaking of long career breaks, this is Mimi Kahn. She’s a social worker in Orange County, California, who returned to work in a social services organization after a 25-year career break.

That’s the longest career break that I’m aware of. Prominent people take career breaks. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor took a five-year career break early in her career. And then, there are the fictional relaunchers. Probably the most famos is Alicia Florrick, the character played by Julianna Margulies in the TV show The Goodwife.

She’s a lawyer who returns to work after a 13-year career break. Here’s a real person who took a 13-year career break. This is Tracy Shapiro, and her family Tracy answered a call for essays by the Today Show from people who were trying to return to work but having a difficult time of it. Tracy wrote in that she was a mom of five who loved her time at home, but she had gone through a divorce and needed to return to work, plus she really wanted to bring work back into her life because she loved working.

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Tracy was doing what so many of us do when we feel like we’ve put in a good day in the job search. She was looking for a finance or accounting role, and she had just spent the last nine months very diligently researching companies online and applying for jobs with no results. I met Tracy in June of 2011, when the Today Show asked me if I could work with her to see if I could help her turn things around. The first thing I told Tracy was she had to get out of the house I told her she had to go public with her job search and tell everyone she knew about her interest in returning to work.

I also told her, “You are going to have a lot of conversations that don’t go anywhere. Expect that, and don’t be discouraged by it. There will be a handful that ultimately lead to a job opportunity.” I’ll tell you what happened with Tracy in a little bit, but I want to share with you a discovery that I made when I was returning to work after my own career break of 11 years out of the full-time workforce, and that is, that people’s view of you is frozen in time. What I mean by this is, when you start to get in touch with people and you get back in touch with those people from the past, the people with whom you worked or went to school, they are going to remember you as you were before your career break, and that’s even if your sense of self has diminished over time, as happens with so many of us the farther removed we are from our professional identities.

So for example, you might think of yourself as someone who looks like this. This is me, crazy after a day of driving around in my minivan. Or here I am in the kitchen. But those people from the past, they don’t know about any of this. They only remember you as you were, and it’s a great confidence boost to be back in touch with these people and hear their enthusiasm about your interest in returning to work.

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There’s one more thing I remember vividly from my own career break, and that was that I hardly kept up with the business news. My background is in finance, and I hardly kept up with any news when I was home caring for my four young children, so I was afraid I’d go into an interview and start talking about a company that didn’t exist anymore. So I had to resubscribe to the Wall Street Journal and read it for a good six months cover to cover before I felt like I had a handle on what was going on in the business world again. I believe relaunchers are a gem of the workforce, and here’s why. Think about our life stage: for those of us who took career breaks for childcare reasons, we have fewer or no maternity leaves.

We did that already. We have fewer spousal or partner job relocations. We’re in a more settled time of life. We have great work experience. We have a more mature perspective.

We’re not trying to find ourselves at an employer’s expense. Plus we have an energy, an enthusiasm about returning to work precisely because we’ve been away from it for a while. On the flip side, I speak with employers, and here are two concerns that employers have about hiring relaunchers. The first one is, employers are worried that relaunchers are technologically obsolete. Now, I can tell you, having been technologically obsolete myself at one point, that it’s a temporary condition.

I had done my financial analysis so long ago that I used Lotus 1-2-3 I don’t know if anyone can even remember back that far, but I had to relearn it on Excel. It actually wasn’t that hard. A lot of the commands are the same. I found PowerPoint much more challenging, but now I use PowerPoint all the time.

I tell relaunchers that employers expect them to come to the table with a working knowledge of basic office management software, and if they’re not up to speed, then it’s their responsibility to get there. And they do. The second area of concern that employers have about relaunchers is they’re worried that relaunchers don’t know what they want to do. I tell relaunchers that they need to do the hard work to figure out whether their interests and skills have changed or have not changed while they have been on career break. That’s not the employer’s job.

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It’s the relauncher’s responsibility to demonstrate to the employer where they can add the most value. Back in 2010 I started noticing something I had been tracking return to work programs since 2008, and in 2010, I started noticing the use of a short-term paid work opportunity, whether it was called an internship or not, but an internship-like experience, as a way for professionals to return to work. I saw Goldman Sachs and Sara Lee start corporate reentry internship programs. I saw a returning engineer, a nontraditional reentry candidate, apply for an entry-level internship program in the military, and then get a permanent job afterward.

I saw two universities integrate internships into mid-career executive education programs. So I wrote a report about what I was seeing, and it became this article for Harvard Business Review called “The 40-Year-Old Intern.” I have to thank the editors there for that title, and also for this artwork where you can see the 40-year-old intern in the midst of all the college interns. And then, courtesy of Fox Business News, they called the concept “The 50-Year-Old Intern.” And just last month, a movie came out, called “The Intern”, that brought us the 70 year old intern.

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