Seeking a fresh start, writer, Sharon Walker seeks to gain work experience in her early 50s and becomes a midlife intern. She learns some valuable lessons along the way…
The start of new work experience
“Is it too late to start over and gain work experience in another field? That’s the question that pops into my head when my 15-year-old daughter asks me to help her organise work experience. I can barely contain my enthusiasm. “Have you thought about working in film? Or what about a florist?” She’s not listening, of course, because what I’m talking about are not things that interest her, but instead career boats that I feel I’ve missed myself.
My life as a freelance writer-slash-PR is fun and flexible, but I can’t help feeling that I’m stuck in a bit of a career rut. Maybe it’s because I’ve just turned 50, but suddenly I’m thinking, “What if I could organise work experience for myself, too?”
I’ve got my doubts about starting over again at my age, but I’m sure I’m far from alone on that front. I decide on three career options that I hope won’t involve a massive amount of retraining and work-shadow an events planner, a film producer, and a florist.
Work placement 1: The events agency
My work starts on a Friday afternoon with a company meeting at an events-management agency, which, rather thrillingly, seems to involve a drinks trolley with bubbles. “This,” I think to myself, “would be a very nice place to work.”
The agency produces exciting experiences, and I’m imagining I’ll soon be holed up in a chic little wine bar with someone cool or brainstorming brilliant ideas.
The reality, of course, is that it takes a lot of behind-the-scenes wizardry to make that kind of magic happen, and I’m soon sitting at an unfamiliar PC with my stomach flipping loops, while I madly google “How do you work Excel?”
I’m set an urgent task. I need to find the best publication to advertise a show aimed at the fashion world. Suddenly, my experience comes into play, and the account manager seems thrilled when I talk to some real fashion heavyweights. Finally, I’ve found my groove!
Events management requires ideas plus. At the end of the week, I was sorry that I had to leave… and just as I was getting to grips with the telephone system!
Events management requires lots of life skills, such as organising and budgeting, plus some flair and ingenuity. There are courses you can take, such as UCT’s Events Management Online Short Course, but you can’t beat experience.
Work placement 2: The film company
My placement at a film company falls at the last hurdle. Just when I’m about to give up, I get the thumbs up from Dave, an award-winning documentary producer at a production company that makes brilliant wildlife and science documentaries.
Dave is also an old friend, and he introduces me to his office by announcing I’m having a midlife crisis. Most interns are 18, but the firm also employs a researcher who was originally a paralegal. The paralegal had a zoology degree and had “really done his homework”, Dave tells me, handing me a document. My task is to search for pictures of rare underwater creatures for a pitch.
I decide to do some “homework” by watching one of the company’s documentaries on a wild turkey family – I’m smitten with these birds and am beginning to wonder if it’s not too late to study zoology.
Out of the three jobs, I felt the most affinity with the film producer, though I can see that it’ a really tough nut to crack.
There’s no set route. Being a film producer is about bringing a project to fruition, so a business background helps. Boston City Campus runs a short course in video production and has branches in all nine provinces.
Work placement 3: The florist
My next stop is at an uber-posh florist. My day starts at 7am at a flower market, where I’m being shown the ropes by Duncan, one of the florist’s flower-school tutors. Soon I’ve got the inside track on where to buy flowers, and who sells the best exotic foliage.
Duncan is optimistic about my chances of retraining as a florist. He sees plenty make the leap, often from careers in banking and accounting. “You don’t need a creative background,” Duncan tells me, “though confidence with colour helps.” Over at the shop, which leads into an Aladdin’s cave of flowers, arrangements are being prepared for five-star hotels and classy restaurants.
My flower mentor, Diane, is preparing a hand-tied bouquet, a cornerstone skill for any florist. But when I try mastering the “spiral” – all the stems must point the same way – it’s not as easy as it looks. Next, I’m prepping roses for a five-star hotel. I’m only stripping off leaves and thorns, but even that gives me a thrill.
On the second day, I’m working with the events team. I arrive at 7.30am and I’m soon prepping calla lilies for a restaurant. I’m also shown how to prep a glass vase for an orchid. Then there are tubs of chrysanthemums to “condition” (florist for strip the leaves and trim the stems).
I’m learning all sorts of floral tips. Next, it’s orange roses for another restaurant. This time, I pull off a neat twist! It’s only six roses, but I still feel a sense of satisfaction.
Working with flowers feels both joyful and purposeful.
There are many training courses, and recognised qualifications. For floristry courses, see the Joburg-based National Floristry and Skills Training Institute. Once you have mastered basics, many florists will accept work experience.”
Are you cut out for a career change?
Career-change expert Richard Alderson says there’s never a better time than now for a mid-career reboot: “While not every employer will see value in your skills and experience, there are plenty who will. And with flexible working increasingly accepted, you can try a number of different avenues while minimising your risk until you find the right path for you.”
Richard has these tips:
The perfect role might not even be on your radar right now, so don’t have too many non-negotiables.
Use your contacts
Reach out to your network and your network’s network. Find other people in the same boat, and mentors who have already done it.
Know it’s a journey
Think of your career change as an expedition, not a day-trip. If you were climbing to the base camp of Mount Everest, it’s possible you could do it by yourself, but it’s highly likely you’d want to go with others – peers, a guide, a support team. It makes the journey safer, faster and, heck, a lot more fun.
You can’t change career by just thinking about it. Start trying different things and meeting new people. Ideas will spark and new opportunities will arise. Constantia-based Career Creations runs career-insight workshops, some of which are tailored for midlife career changers. These can also be taken online if you’re not in the Cape.