The Sunday Times - Older interns impress with growth mindset - 15Nov2020

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The Sunday Times - Older interns impress with growth mindset

Nov 15 2020

Firms value their perspectives and past experience, and younger interns view them as role models 

When Robert De Niro's 70-year-old character takes up an internship at an e-commerce fashion start-up in the movie The Intern (2015), he starts off needing help with technology and not having much to do.

But he finds ways to learn and help, and eventually becomes an invaluable member of the team.

Like in reel life, some mature interns here have also received good reviews from their host organisations, ranging from start-ups to statutory boards.

Ms Manisha Seewal, group chief marketing officer of automotive marketplace Carro, hosted a 50-year-old digital marketing intern for two months this year.

"We were very impressed with her... demonstrating the growth mindset that's needed to succeed in today's job market. The younger interns too looked up to her as a role model for learning constantly," she said.

The intern, who was new to digital marketing, landed a full-time role in a different industry and also signed up for a one-year digital marketing course at Singapore Polytechnic, she added.

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Mr Guillaume Catella, founder and chief executive of venture builder start-up Creatella, is currently hosting a second mature intern from Singapore, Ms Joyce Toh, 44 (see story below).

The firm typically hosts up to 10 interns a year internationally.

Mr Catella said the first mature intern three years back, whose background was in literature, quickly went from intern to digital marketer, project management assistant and project manager, before launching a start-up herself.

"Mature interns never fail to surprise us positively. We too learn from their past experience and perspectives," he said. "Our team's values and work methodology tend to attract more younger people, but as long as someone feels strongly aligned with our vision and values, his age is irrelevant," he added.

Instead of having a fixed internship programme, Mr Catella said the firm takes the time to understand its interns' strengths, what they want to learn most, their career goals and skill sets they need to develop, and then create roles, road maps and a structure that fits them.

Mid-career job seekers can consider company attachments under the SGUnited Mid-Career Pathways programme. As at the end of last month, there were about 10,600 such opportunities.

Even though it is not a permanent role, Workforce Singapore principal career coach Glenford Koh said taking on a company attachment or company-based training under the programme shows prospective employers that a job seeker is adaptable and proactive in continuing to be productive and engaged in the workforce - attributes which most employers look for in a candidate.

On how mature workers can make the most of an internship, Mr Paul Heng, managing director of NeXT Career Consulting Group, Asia, recommended starting with a mindset that taking on a mature internship is not a step backwards, but the beginning of a new chapter in one's career. Employers or supervisors must also want to make it work. Both interns and bosses need to be realistic and be prepared to set reasonable key performance indicators, he said.

Also key is support from one's spouse or family, he added. They must understand the reality of the situation and be aware of why their family member wants or needs to take on an internship. "Moral and practical support can make a difference between success and failure," said Mr Heng.

Mr Koh noted that if the company does not broach the subject of an employment contract three months before the attachment is due to end, the mid-career job seeker should take the initiative to speak with the immediate supervisor to determine whether he has a future with the company.

"Take the chance to thank them for the opportunity to learn new skills and gain experience in the past few months too," he said.

"If the company values the job seekers, it will make an offer that appeals to them.

"A progressive employer will also value the maturity, past working experience and transferable skills of mid-career job seekers and be willing to offer higher pay than it would to fresh graduates."


Learning start-up culture from the bottom up at 44

It may seem like a surprising time to quit a job, but for Ms Joyce Toh, the Covid-19 pandemic jolted her out of her familiar job in museums and into an internship at a start-up.

Ms Toh, 44, left her job as a senior curator in September after 13 years as she felt her growth had plateaued. "Something about the pandemic and being at home forced me to think carefully about what is important in life," she said.

"If I don't move now and don't push myself now, I'll never do it. I know that there are things that I want to achieve in life, for myself and to help others."

While looking for opportunities in new fields, she felt that most positions she was interested in would require some experience, and many already had hundreds of applications. She considered trying a start-up, as she thought the management team would likely be more risk-taking and open to taking on someone like her.

It was then that she came across a LinkedIn post by venture builder Creatella for an unpaid position. After researching the company and its founder-cum-chief executive Guillaume Catella, Ms Toh contacted him through LinkedIn and followed up with an e-mail.

Though Mr Catella said the position was too junior for her, they spoke on the phone and Ms Toh gave her pitch. "I want to learn skills and knowledge, and make contact with like-minded people who want to impact society. I hope to create a paradigm shift in arts, culture or social work to unlock more value and opportunities for people," she said.

Mr Catella said he offered her the role because her aspirations resonate with his as she wants to find new ways to create value, particularly through education. "We try to maximise diversity of gender, race, nationality, culture and age among our team, as such creative abrasion brings our team more creativity and open-mindedness," he added.

Ms Toh, who is about a month into her three-month stint and is working on an entrepreneurship boot camp for secondary school students, said one challenge is getting to know her colleagues as the team is very international and interacts online.

But this has helped her think about how she would keep everyone motivated if she were running her own project in the future and working with a remote team.

She is also learning about how Creatella organises its workforce and what models and mindsets she can apply in other industries or situations.

Ms Toh, who is single, said that unlike people who are retrenched, she was able to plan ahead which took away a lot of the fear and uncertainty of the transition. The circuit breaker and work-from-home period allowed her to calculate the cost of her basic needs each month and work out how long she could go without an income.

Although the internship is unpaid and there is a risk that it may not look impressive to prospective employers, she feels the knowledge, skills and contacts she will gain are a fair trade-off.

"Being an intern at 44 for some people might seem embarrassing but if you recast it, it's actually a wonderful opportunity that I'm able to create on my own terms."


Taking a leap of faith to embrace fresh challenge elsewhere

Mr Richard Chai, 50, is no stranger to technology, having programmed surveillance and inspection robots in a previous job.

But he still had some concerns in September last year, when he was about to start a six-month internship to build a chatbot at the Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board.

"I was worried about how my colleagues would react to an intern who could possibly be much older than them. The tech AI (artificial intelligence) field is usually filled with news of young IT stars. Would an old man be accepted?"

The business graduate, who also has a specialist diploma in AI, added: "I was also worried about how I would react, my own emotional state in dealing with a new setting."

The experience turned out to be much better than he had expected, as his supervisor gave him many opportunities to try different ideas to create the chatbot, write Python programs and learn robotic process automation.

Mr Chai eventually recommended against using the planned system to create the chatbot, and received the full support of his superiors.

Colleagues from other departments were also very welcoming, and they even gave him chocolates during Christmas, he said.

Mr Chai was offered a full-time position in April this year and now works as a business analyst.

His internship supervisor, 31-year-old Tan Bing Wen, said his curiosity, eagerness to venture beyond his comfort zone and sunny outlook during the interview were what landed him the internship.

Although Mr Tan is much younger than Mr Chai, he found that, like managing anyone, "it all boils down to communication, mutual understanding and empathy".

"The different perspectives and experiences a mature intern can bring can definitely make it worthwhile," Mr Tan added.

Mr Chai came across the CPF Board's internship post when he was looking at AI-related jobs on LinkedIn to find out what specific AI skills or projects were in demand, as he realised he lacked real-world experience in the field.

He took a leap of faith to leave his job as an application engineering manager in an engineering software company to become an intern. As the monthly allowance of $1,200 was not enough to cover his family expenses for his household, daughter and mother, he had to dip into his savings.

"However, this was a path I chose to take and I have no complaints and definitely no regrets."

Mr Chai is currently pursuing a Master of Technology in Intelligent Systems through a stackable route at the National University of Singapore's Institute of Systems Science, which means he studies at his own pace and can stack graduate certificates and a capstone project into a master's qualification.

His advice for other mature interns: "First, understand deeply why you have decided to take on the internship, so that if you face difficulties - which you probably will, especially if you've switched to a new field - you will find it easier to steady yourself.

"Also, listen very carefully before offering any suggestions, resist the temptation to assume that you already have the answers due to your previous experience."




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