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The Internship: Career Change Hollywood-Style

Silly as it is, the new movie has learning points about what to do when you are jobless (and clueless)

by Richard Satran

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In The Internship a couple of 40-somethings lose their sales jobs and decide the best way to get rehired is to compete for spots as Google interns and recapture their place in a world they know is changing. What better way to jump into the epicenter of the new economy than as an intern at forever-young Google? It’s a funny idea, and despite the fact The Internship is pure Hollywood, there might be real-world takeaway for career re-inventors.

To start with, there are the “How Not to Act Employable” lessons. Don't do as they do!

Get fluent fast. Vince Vaughn’s character, Billy, keeps saying “on-the-line” instead of “online” and when someone politely offers help he ignores it. Don’t do that at the office: Listen and learn the language.

Don’t push your views on topics where you have no knowledge, as Billy does by proposing “a new application” that his colleagues tell him was already done. “That’s Instagram.” Again he ignores their friendly advice and keeps selling the idea.

Be a team player. Don’t waste people’s time by rambling on with your own ideas when you should be joining the group. “You’re saying a lot of words really fast that don’t mean anything,” a friendly colleague advises.

Those are low-hanging lessons you can pluck early into the movie. After that, Billy and Nick’s self-professed “people skills” start to work. The middle-aged pals introduce the elite college-educated Googlers to the world of drinking too much (have the movie writers been to a college campus lately?), eating tons of pizza (never thought of that one in college?) and partying at a strip club (truly the most boring part of the PG-13 movie.)

To be sure, the “on-the-line” routines and the off-the-wall behavior are there for laughs. “I liked it. It’s a bit dumb but enjoyable,” says Carol Fishman Cohen, founder of, a company that advises mid-career people on returning to work after being sidelined.

Cohen can speak with authority on the topic since she beat Hollywood to the screen with her own article for Harvard Business Review last year on “The 40 Year Old Intern.” She's filed a story about The Internship too.

There are a few positives, and even some takeaway from The Internship, but “For mid-career people unemployed right now and looking for work, seeing this movie as any kind of a model would be ridiculous.” says Cohen. Nick and Billy have no relevant technology skills. “The idea that people like that would have a chance of getting hired at Google is pretty far-fetched.”

     See also: Returnships Help Workers Re-Enter: Here's How to Find One

But the idea of an internship for adults is not so crazy. A CareerBuilder Survey in 2010 reported that 25 percent of hiring managers were considering people with more than 10 years of experience as well as 50-plus workers for intern jobs.

Don’t look for the kind of programs Nick and Billy targeted as a likely place to restart your midlife career change. Prestigious company internships are nearly always taken by top students in degree-track programs who are headed to graduate work. (In the movie the duo apply quickly to the online University of Phoenix to qualify as college students.) Hiring companies, colleges and government labor officials are not trying adventurous hiring strategies.

Still, older workers are being hired at record rates in recent years, say U.S. Labor Department Statistics, and AARP reports that unemployment for workers over 55 has dropped steadily this year. Here are some of the non-traditional ways back that iRelaunch’s Cohen says people are using to rewrite their own career stories:

Returnships. A few companies are offering a program to bring back people who have left the workforce in short-term positions so they can reorient themselves and refresh their skills. Goldman Sachs has run such a program since 2008.

Temporary jobs or consulting positions. The pay might not be great, and the benefits are often non-existent, but “it’s probably the best way to get a foot in the door and eventually get hired full-time,” Cohen says.

Strategic volunteering. Volunteering in general is a good way to get out and meet people, Cohen says. Strategic volunteering in a field you’re eyeing is a “more directed approach” -- like a program for volunteers at Sundance Movie Festival. (Spoiler alert, with 1,800 volunteers, it might be hard to get Spielberg’s attention.)

Externships. Not a new term, it’s a short-term experience shadowing someone in a job, a practice common in medical or law school. It sometimes refers to an older intern on a tryout.

The one-off special-situation internship. As an example, a woman Cohen worked with volunteered at a cancer treatment institute as a regulatory compliance person. This led to a satisfying full-time job.

Certificate programs or single courses. A certificate program can be especially relevant for someone attempting a career shift. It’s quicker than starting over in a new full-degree program. Some colleges even offer intern possibilities.

These real-world experiences give companies a chance to know candidates. “Sitting at home blindly putting in applications online for six months doesn’t cut it,” says Cohen. “You have to get out of the house, and meet people. Take a low-paid intern or temp job if you have to, or do an unpaid internship or volunteer work. Update your resume. You have to do all of these things concurrently as part of an overall strategy.”

     See also: The Right Certificate Can Land You a Great Job

The Internship gets this one right, since Nick and Billy quickly despair of online bulletin boards. It also understands that mid-career people face ageism. One arrogant rival derides Billy for getting through the Google door because, “In a world of excellence being old and unexceptional qualifies as diversity.”

The movie shows strivers succeeding and not letting age get in the way. As another example in popular culture, Cohen cites CBS’s award-winning The Good Wife for showing a single mother successfully returning to work as a litigator after a 14-year childrearing break, because her husband gets embroiled in a scandal and goes to jail.

This fall Parkinsons victim Michael J. Fox stars in a new series loosely based on his own life. “That’s a very good message,” says Cohen. “People face all kinds of challenges, and you can’t be turned back just because there is ageism out there. There is, but in the real world it’s up to the individual to stay relevant and make your own place in it.” Without losing your sense of humor.

Photo credit: Phil Bray/Courtesy 20th Century Fox