For many years, Gwen Wunderlich gave no more than a passing thought to the issue of ageism in the workplace. That began to change last fall when Wunderlich, a business owner and public relations expert, turned 40.
“I started seeing my peers, particularly people in the fashion business, get laid off and replaced by younger people. I had family and friends lose jobs or get buyouts and not be able to get another job,” said Wunderlich, founder and chief executive officer of Wunderlich Kaplan Communications, a New York City-based public relations firm.
“Before I turned 40, I never really noticed” ageism, she admitted.
Inspired by “The Intern” -- a feel-good flick about a 70-year-old retiree who tries to reenter the workforce by taking an internship at an e-commerce startup -- Wunderlich and her business partner, Dara Kaplan, decided to try to make a small dent in a big problem.
This summer, their firm launched an internship program for women over 40, a group that has suffered in recent years from a higher rate of long-term unemployment. In 2006-07, 21 percent of unemployed women between the ages of 40 and 49 had been out of work for more than six months, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Following the Great Recession, from 2012 to 2013, 45 percent of unemployed women in that age group had been out of work for upwards of six months. Prospects for women over 50 also grew more bleak following the recession.
Wunderlich Kaplan’s four-week internship is designed to help older women reboot their careers -- whether that entails landing a new job or starting a business -- by gaining skills and hands-on experience in public relations, digital communications and special-event planning.
The program, according to the company’s website, “was created for women who are tired of millennials stampeding over them at work, women who jumped the corporate ship, for vibrant retirees or for moms looking to break back into the workforce.”
The firm began accepting applications for its first-ever group of interns last June, and the response, said Wunderlich, was overwhelming. More than 600 women applied during the first week. In all, the company received more than 1,500 applications for eight slots. The internships are unpaid and part-time.
“One story was sadder than the next,” said Wunderlich. “I had two women apply who had breast cancer and had to take years off, and they couldn’t get back into the workforce.”
The company’s first group of interns comprises women in their 40s, 50s and 60s. They included a lawyer, a former CNN producer, a graphic designer and a stay-at-home mom. Some once held managerial jobs and oversaw dozens of employees in those positions.
A major focus of the internship is using social media as a marketing tool. The interns also work on fine-tuning their writing skills, with the aim of learning to write in a conversational, rather than formal, tone.
The inaugural class of interns, said Wunderlich, did not disappoint. They were eager to learn, took initiative, worked independently and supported one another, she explained. One even landed a job during the internship and managed to finish the program by coming in after work.
Like Robert DeNiro’s character in “The Intern,” the women were often a calming influence in a fast-paced, stressful work environment, said Wunderlich.
“Their attitude,” she said, “was not what can you do for me, but what can we do for you.”
Rochelle Carter-Wilson, a former human resources professional, was among the first to complete the program. She said she leaped at the chance to apply after many frustrating years of searching for a new job with no luck.
In 2008, as the economy was imploding, Carter-Wilson, now 52, was laid off from what she calls “the sexiest job” she ever had. She was director of human resources for Blue Man Productions, the entertainment company behind the Blue Man Group show. Unable to find full-time work after the layoff, Carter-Wilson spent years caring for her two children, volunteering and doing consulting gigs.
The internship, she said, helped her rediscover her passion and talent for writing and regain confidence in her professional abilities. She’s now working on a freelance basis for Wunderlich Kaplan, helping to run the internship program and create written materials for it. The company’s second group of interns starts in September.
“I felt my career was D.O.A.” before the internship, said Carter-Wilson. “I needed fresh eyes with which to view the experience that I already had and would not have valued properly” if not for the program, she added.
Wunderlich Kaplan certainly isn’t the only firm with a program to help workers who’ve had difficulty landing jobs after taking a career break. In recent years, a number of others -- particularly tech, financial services and consulting firms that are eager to recruit greater numbers of women -- have rolled out reentry programs.
IBM (IBM), General Motors (GM) and Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH), along with four other global companies, recently teamed up with the Society of Women Engineers and iRelaunch to create reentry internships. iRelaunch provides coaching and other services to people seeking to break back into the workforce.
Over the last couple years, A.T. Kearney and UBS (UBS) have rolled out reentry programs for experienced professionals, and hundreds of people have participated in such programs at Goldman Sachs (GS), Morgan Stanley (MS) and other financial services firms. Many programs serve both men and women.
Wunderlich said it seems fitting for her small, eight-person firm to focus on helping women for a number of reasons, including the fact that they’re still more likely than men to step away from their careers to care for children or aging parents.
“We never say never,” she said, “but we can’t help everybody.”