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12 Jul. 2013 | Comments (0)

Let's establish up front that Billy and Nick, the two 40ish, out-of-work salesmen played by Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in the new movie The Internship, are unlikely to land a coveted summer spot at Google. But in Hollywood, the place where Cameron Diaz can be an orthopedic surgeon (in There's Something About Mary), anything is possible. So let's suspend disbelief (and put aside the question of whether or not it's funny) and consider what the movie gets right about midcareer internships.

  • College internships are well established, but the strategy of opening up internship programs to non-traditional candidates is gaining currency. It provides a cost effective and low-risk way to engage with mid-career professionals seeking to return to work. (I wrote about this trend in the November 2012 issue of HBR.) Sometimes, as in The Internship, the non-traditional candidate turns out to be the best choice.
  • No matter the age of the intern, internship programs give both employer and intern an opportunity to try each other out before committing. In the movie, only the best team will be offered full-time employment, giving Google a unique chance to see its future employees in action.
  • Despite Billy's Flashdance references, the movie underscores that the "older" generation can collaborate constructively with millennials. In fact, as the movie progresses, their differing perspectives and skills help them form an effective team, with each age group relying on the other to provide what it lacks. My own experience bears this out. When I returned to work at an investment firm at age 42, after 11 years out of the full-time workforce, I was the grandmother of the operation. Humor and a willingness to admit what I didn't understand enabled me to establish productive working relationships with my younger colleagues. They in turn would seek me out for advice that only someone "more seasoned" could offer.
  • Mid-career professionals returning to the workforce or transitioning, whether as interns or not, will have a better chance to succeed if they are "coachable." In the movie, Nick is initially more coachable than Billy, and he excels earlier because of it.
  • Mid-career professionals should not make assumptions about who may be "on their side." (Warning: Spoiler Alert.) In The Internship, the manager overseeing the internship program appears hostile to Billy and Nick until the very end, when he discloses that he cast the deciding vote to admit them. Lacking the fancy education of so many Googlers, he had prevailed through hard work and saw the same tenacity in Nick and Billy. Career transitioners and returning professionals may be surprised by who will relate to their backgrounds. The unapproachable 64-year-old senior partner may have a daughter returning to the workforce after a career break, or the 45-year-old middle manager's husband may be transitioning to a new career.
  • The movie caricatures middle-aged technophobes, and Billy's repeated references to being "on the line" (rather than online) are hilarious. But in fact, technological ignorance among mid-career professionals is rare today, and most understand that employers expect them to come to the table with basic technology skills in Excel, PowerPoint and Word, and some familiarity with social media. Serious candidates for employment make it a priority to update skills before applying for jobs. Yet the movie also shows Billy and Nick moving quickly up the technology learning curve, demonstrating that mid-career professionals can achieve a level of technological proficiency necessary to survive even at Google (or at least the Hollywood version).
  • One skill that is sometimes undervalued among younger professionals is sales. In The Internship, Billy's exceptional sales prowess saves the day for his team.

When I left the theater after seeing The Internship my initial reaction was how unrealistic it was. The idea that two watch salesmen who had recently enrolled at the University of Phoenix would even make it as far as the Skype interview for the Google internship is pretty far-fetched. And how convenient that Billy and Nick are both single with no other commitments and could relocate at a moment's notice. Yet, setting all that aside, the movie offers a number of lessons.

Will it inspire companies to hire more mid-career transitioners or returnees? Hard to say. But just maybe some employers will get the message. Maybe even Google.

 

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 06/10/2013.

View our complete listing of Talent Management blogs.

  • About the Author:Carol Fishman Cohen

    Carol Fishman Cohen

    Carol Fishman Cohen is co-founder of iRelaunch, a return-to-work consulting and conference firm, and co-author of Back on the Career Track.…

    Full Bio | More from Carol Fishman Cohen

     

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