Deandrea Anderson waded into her first day of a Bell TV internship expecting a round of jaw drops when colleagues discovered her age.
But the 32-year-old former advertising producer and beauty shop owner didn't expect to be patronized, however unintentionally, by the bubbly twentysomething intern she was slated to replace.
Ms. Anderson bit her tongue while the intern trained her on interactive marketing tricks she had already mastered, but piped up here and there to demonstrate that she had the chops.
"We had a conflict because I came with experience as well, and she wasn't under the impression I had as much," she says, also recalling how the youthful intern dished about her personal life. "But," Ms. Anderson admits, "I realized that she had a lot of information and I couldn't really bite the hand that was feeding me."
Thanks to an insecure economy and an indecisive generation of folks swapping careers like baseball cards, 35-year-old interns are no longer freaks in the workplace.
Some employers even seek out the 30-plus, preferring maturity and experience to the stereotypical gum-chomping 20-year-old interns who tend to dress inappropriately and show up late for work, says Catherine Connelly, assistant professor of organizational behaviour at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.
"The differences come in terms of emotional intelligence," she says.
An older intern's bulging portfolio is a definite score for employers seeking cheap yet high-quality labour, Dr. Connelly says. Since last year, McMaster's MBA co-op program has seen a 20-per-cent rise in requests from employers hoping to hire mature students, she adds.
Though treasured by cost- and quality-conscious bosses, 30-plus interns sacrifice a lot to build a new career from the ground up.
Many, like Ms. Anderson, take a massive pay cut.
The Toronto resident made $70,000 a year working for advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather before moving to British Columbia to marry and giving birth to daughter Emika, now 6. After opening and closing a beauty salon there, she returned to Toronto four years later and updated her skills with a business diploma at George Brown College. Then she started as a Bell intern making $23,000 a year.
"It was a huge salary cut, but I thought it was worth the risk," she says. "I knew having that work experience was really, really valuable and that [it]would launch me back into a regular career."
Most older interns also have bills to foot, mortgages to pay and children to fret about, Dr. Connelly says. They'll probably take an internship more seriously because, at 30, they'd rather it led to a real job, not another intern gig.
"It's pretty much, 'This is your big chance,' " she says. "They've got a lot of responsibilities, so it's now or never. They're going to make the most of it."
But thirtysomethings be warned: If you can't swallow your pride, an internship might be your toughest gig yet.
"It probably takes a very special person to be that intern. You've got to put your ego pretty far in check," says Matthew Zinman of the Internship Institute in Newtown, Pa. "That's just a natural human tendency to say, 'I'm 35 years old, I'm just getting into this and I've got these 21-year-old whippersnappers around me.' It's hard."
Renée Gaucher worked as a waitress and kept the books at her aunt's staffing agency while studying arts and psychology at the University of Calgary before she took an internship at General Motors in St. Catharines, Ont. The 35-year-old was sent straight to the filing room when she started the human-resources gig four years ago, she says.
"Some of the jobs they had me do were very basic, like I had to purge files in the safe and I had to rearrange their filing system," said Ms. Gaucher, who now works as a wage subsidy assistance co-ordinator. "I thought, 'Oh, I hope it's not going to be like that the whole time.' But it changed. I gradually got to do more. It's a learning experience and I chose it."
Older interns can also have a tough time blending in with their younger peers - not that they're always trying to.
Kryssta Mills, 33, a recipient of a British Columbia Film internship, doesn't hang out with the few other interns in their early 20s, but one mention of her breadth of experience over drinks one night had them awkwardly mocking her. Though she's sure it was meant as a joke, it widened the rift between them, Ms. Mills said.
"We're drinking beer and ... they'd say, 'Oh, we'd love to go to the Cannes Film Festival,' and I'm like, 'Oh really, I just went and I had a film that I produced that screened there.' They're like, 'Oh God, what are you doing here? Are you in Grade 6? You didn't make it in the world and you have to be an intern? Come on!' "
Michael John, a former bartender and butler in his native Caribbean, is now a hospitality and tourism student at Nova Scotia Community College in Halifax. Though he parties with his younger peers at their co-op placement at the Coast Pyramid Lake Resort in Jasper, Alta., you could pluck him from the pack. He dresses a little stiffer than his peers in their 20s - mostly in crisp dress shirts and nice pants, while they don jeans and T-shirts. He also doesn't share much of his personal life with them because he doesn't think they can relate.
"I'm a single dad," he says. "That's one thing most of them don't know anything about."
But an internship just doesn't sit right for some older career-hoppers.
Dr. Connelly recalls a 50-year-old McMaster co-op student who had worked as a self-employed consultant for years, enrolled in the program, then changed his mind about switching and ditched it a semester in.
"What he found was he already had more career experience than he needed to be able to make that career switch," she says.
While Ms. Anderson's age wasn't the first topic of conversation when she started at Bell TV, the jaw drop from her colleagues eventually came when she dropped the age bomb.
"Most of them were shocked," she says. But in a perhaps less shocking turn, Ms. Anderson was later hired to run one of the interactive gaming channels. The move landed her a $30,000 salary boost and a hefty dose of respect in the office - a pretty solid payoff for that first day of humiliation.