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Why Women Over 40 Make the Best Interns

10/23/2012 06:35 pm ET | Updated Dec 23, 2012

When it comes to getting the job done, the backside of 40 never looked so good.

If you think deepening wrinkles, the need for a more flexible schedule due to multiple kids at home, and a large resume gap because of raising kids are the only reasons to welcome a 40-plus-year-old "returner" into your office, think again.

Those things are great. Wrinkles show character, raising kids is the hardest job in the world and a resume gap shows that priorities are important to you. All good. However, there are plenty more reasons why recent college grads have nothing on women over 40 and why when it comes time to fill your next internship spot, it would make good sense to cast your net into the "returnship" crowd.

In the world of work, returners are women who at one time had a solid career and are looking to return to the workforce after taking time off to raise kids, take care of ailing parents, or focus on other projects.

For most of the women with whom I've spoken, leaving their jobs was a decision they didn't take lightly. And even for those who seemed to make the transition to the home most gracefully, even they often arrived kicking and screaming. They liked their jobs, they enjoyed the daily challenges and they fought hard to move up the ranks. At the same time they felt a strong pull to be at home; so, they made the choice to leave knowing they would return to the fold one day.

Unfortunately, returning to work in this economy is no easy feat. Tack 10 or more years of seemingly dead time onto your resume and it can be about as easy as climbing Mount Everest without oxygen. So, when these women are ready to go back to work, many are returning by way of volunteering or participating in more formal returnship programs so they can get their feet back in the door, test the waters on jobs that have changed dramatically since their departure, or try on completely new careers.

I left my job seven years ago when I was pregnant so I could start my own business and be as available to my daughter as I could be without losing all of my income. It was the best decision I ever made and the time I had with her was a gift. However, now that she's in the first grade and I'm looking out over the next 30 years of my working life, I'm certain that there is a lot left for me to explore. I am doing that by setting up my own returnships.

Based on my experience and the research I've done, here are four reasons women over 40 make the best interns.

#1 -- No Handholding Required

During my research I've spoken with many who have served as supervisors to returners and the one thing they have all said is that the greatest advantage to bringing in older women who are hoping to return to the workforce is that they don't need any handholding. They are seasoned, they know how things work and they usually know themselves well enough to know where they can be the most useful.

Tracy Geoghegan, director of publications and branding in the Marketing and Communications Department at Save the Children said that having an older person in the role of intern (Save the Children calls them Professional Volunteers) was a huge plus.

"When you have young interns you have to do so much nurturing on basic skills to even get them to the place where they are able to contribute. They are often looking for direction, to be told what to do," Geoghegan said.

When you are a director in charge of multiple projects at an organization the size of Save the Children, all of the handholding that has to be done with younger workers can turn into a liability.

If you can bring someone on who can hit the ground running from day one and take ownership of a project, you'll not only make your life easier but you'll allow her to dust off her skills more quickly and together you'll achieve the outcomes your organization, and your boss, will love.

#2 -- Time Matters

One of my friends recently returned to an office setting after having spent the past 16 years working for herself and raising two daughters.

When she first arrived at this very young and very hip company (where she was working for free), she was taken in by the energy and excitement and loved all of the interaction.

However, after a few days of trying to get work done, she realized how different her mindset was from most of the people in the office. At 46 years of age and after having run her own show for so many years my friend is not into the "clocking in-and-out" mindset. She goes into work with a purpose and a drive to get as much done as she can. That's not the case with many of the younger people. She says, "Many of the young people just sit around waiting for something to happen. I want to go over to their desks and say, 'What is the matter with you people? We've got work to do. Get moving!'"

Spoken like a true entrepreneur and mother.

But this is a common theme expressed by many returners. Every move they make has a purpose and with the end goal of getting hired full time, impressing people with the quality of their work, or making connections that might help them down the road, time is not a luxury they can afford to waste.

That's the kind of person you want in your camp.

#3 -- Maturity Is Money

No matter how freshly printed their diplomas, no matter how glowing their recommendations and no matter how sharp their minds, 20-somethings simply lack the maturity that over 40s have.

When you throw a returner into a situation that demands she communicate with individuals at all levels of an organization, you can trust she'll know how to handle herself.

When you hand her a project that requires her to practice good judgment, you can rest easy knowing she's been here before and she'll navigate it nearly as well as you will.

When you ask her to take your place during a team meeting, you can expect that the ability to collaborate and handle the dynamics of a team environment will be second nature to her.

And, when you sign off on a job well done, you can bet that she'll be hungry for you to lay another assignment squarely on her desk.

That's money in the bank.

One woman with whom I spoke, Mary, who is currently a Donor Communications Specialist in the Marketing and Communications Department at Save the Children, joined the company as a Professional Volunteer after staying at home to raise her three children for 10 years. Prior to leaving the workforce Mary was a Principal at the global consulting firm Mercer. Clearly she knew her way around a company.

She began volunteering one day a week at Save the Children and then when the agency geared up in response to Japan's massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011, she was asked to take on more responsibilities. Before she knew it they needed her to come in every day. She jumped at the chance. Mary was willing to take anything they threw at her because she had a clear goal in mind - get hired full time.

The part that surprised Mary the most was how much returning to work awakened her own ambition and drive. When she began her volunteer position she just wanted to get back to work and do something meaningful. She wasn't seeking recognition or accolades; however, as soon as she got back in action, her ambition to "own things" came back.

What Mary was able to do with that ambition, that many younger people aren't mature enough to do, was direct it appropriately. She didn't barge in and try to take over, which with her background she probably could have done just fine. Rather, she focused on doing the best she could on the assignments she was given, took the initiative when she saw an opening, and made it known that she wanted to take on more, move up and get hired full time. A year later, she did all of the above.

Time and again returnship supervisors have expressed that maturity is peace of mind. They say more mature women know how to handle themselves, they are more professional and you can trust them to react to people and situations quickly and appropriately. Being around the block has its advantages.

#4 -- Depth of Experience

I've had the pleasure of speaking with former consultants, bankers, teachers, human resource directors, public relations executives and others who spent 10 to 15 years climbing the ranks in their organizations before they left to spend time raising their kids. These women are sharp, quick, driven, and are excited about going back to work. If my company used interns as a regular practice and any one of them knocked on my door and said "I'd like to work for you for free for the next three months to sharpen my skills and provide value to your organization so that I can get a full time job here or somewhere else," I'd do my best to find a place for them.

When it comes to free labor, what could be better than someone with 20 plus years of relevant skills, transferable skills, and a serious drive to make a distinctly favorable impression? That just feels like good business to me.

The World of Work Has Changed

The world of work has changed. Rarely do people stay at the same jobs for decades anymore so why is age a factor at all?

In fact, since that is the case, why wouldn't you prefer someone with maturity and life experience who was willing to do just about anything to get her foot back in the door over someone who has limited experience in work or life who constantly needs direction and handholding?

One very candid internship coordinator from a mid-sized for profit company told me that one of the reasons hiring older interns is a challenge is because they have very strong opinions, are set in their ways and they always have to make their ideas known. He said his supervisors, who are often in their late 20s and early 30s, don't like that very much. But even if we pretend those qualities are negative, isn't someone with opinions, ideas, and a voice a small price to pay for getting someone who has extensive experience in the field and a strong desire to contribute to the work of your organization?

I'm not saying that internships shouldn't be given to recent college grads. Of course they should. Internships are critical to helping them get the skills they will need to be successful in their career and in life. All I'm saying is 40-somethings have compelling credentials to offer too and the next time you run across one whose trying to get her foot back in the door, maybe you'll give her the chance to show it.