How we bagged our dream second careers with a 'minternship'

How we bagged our dream second careers with a ‘minternship’: Three successful women explain, with women hit particularly hard by the Covid crash, many of us are looking for a midlife job change

  • Study shows 61 per cent of women are dreaming of changing career post-covid 
  • Natasha Stanley says a minternship can help to build experience in new industry
  • British women who changed career in midlife reveal how they found success
  • Victoria Dodge, 49, increased her income by 200 per cent with her career swap

We used to talk about a midlife crisis — but, thanks to Covid-19, nowadays it’s all about the midlife ‘pivot’. Lives that seemed settled have been upended, and the middle-aged are among those having to think of new careers — especially women.

With sectors such as retail and hospitality hit particularly hard by the pandemic, it’s women who are most likely to need a switch. According to the women’s networking club AllBright, 61 per cent are dreaming of a complete career change post-Covid.

The bright side is there are still opportunities — virtual learning companies, for example, are booming; doctors, nurses and social care workers are in high demand.

Still, the prospect of starting over at the bottom of the ladder can be daunting.

Three British women revealed how they overhauled their lives with a midlife career change, including Victoria Dodge, 49, (pictured) who went from being a pet shop manager to a solicitor

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is trying to lend a hand with his online retraining drive, and while a government ad campaign suggesting that ‘Fatima the ballerina’ should retrain as a cyber security expert caused controversy (and no shortage of jokes), many of us really will need to think laterally.

In one way, the pandemic has accelerated a trend that was already emerging. With all of us working longer into midlife and beyond, traditional career paths are increasingly being replaced by ‘multi-stage’ working lives, spanning not just one career but several.

Even so, those considering a new career in their 40s or 50s may well wonder whether employers will take them seriously — and how they can even get a foot in the door without any relevant experience.

That is why the latest trend for midlife pivoters is to become a ‘mintern’ — that is, a midlife intern.

Minternships, says Natasha Stanley, head coach at specialist company Careershifters, ‘are a valuable way to build up experience in a new industry, make connections and, crucially, demonstrate the skills and experience that ageist employers might ignore in the context of a traditional on-paper job application’.

Career change can be overwhelming — but these three women show how you can make it a success . . .

NOW I’M A LAWYER: MY INCOME HAS INCREASED BY 200 PER CENT

Victoria Dodge, 49, lives in Nottinghamshire with her husband David, 52, a company director. They have two children aged 25 and 22.

BEFORE: Pet shop manager

AFTER: Solicitor

My first job was in a pet shop when I was 18. I went to a grammar school, but school just didn’t work out and I left at 16 with three O-levels.

It was a proper little High Street pet store with budgies, parrots and guinea pigs. I loved it — my bosses, customers, the animals. It was a family business. They went on to have eight shops around the East Midlands and, within nine months, I was managing their new shop in Newark.

I thought: ‘Oh my God, this is like playing shops — for real!’

Victoria (pictured) who lives in Nottinghamshire, said she became interested in studying law after speaking to the babysitter of her children 

When my son was born, three years later, I cut back to three days a week and took on more of an area manager role. But, a few years after that, I took over the job of paying the wages and bills.

A few months later, I had my second son, and work became really stressful. I thought I needed to change.

My babysitter at the time was doing a law degree and I’d talk to her about it and it sounded really interesting. Plus, I’d done some jury service which I found fascinating.

In 2007, Nottingham Trent University accepted me with no qualifications at all. It was really hard work because I am not naturally clever, and the boys still needed a lot of support but, at last, it felt as though I was getting somewhere.

I started my minternship at the end of the second year.

Even though I’d been studying law, I still didn’t really know what a solicitor did, other than help you buy a house.

A friend put me in touch with Elisabeth Halls, a personal injury solicitor at a High Street law firm in Nottingham city centre. I started going in once a week, just making phone calls, photocopying, doing work experience. I even brushed cat fur off Lis’s clothes after we visited a flat with lots of cats.

I never felt awkward. I remember sitting in on client interviews and Lis saying: ‘Vicki is doing work experience.’ No one batted an eyelid, even though I was middle-aged. I’d joke and say: ‘It’s taken me a long time to decide what I want to do when I grow up.’ The internship lasted two years.

I graduated in 2011, aged 40. But then I had to do the LPC, the vocational training to become a solicitor, and that was the only time I felt out of my depth. 

Victoria (pictured) who funded her training with savings, revealed the career change increased her income by about 200 per cent 

The LPC was 40 hours a week. You were in lectures all day and, for the first two weeks, I cried every day.

Then, in November 2010, I was in a big lecture theatre and I got an email from Lis saying: ‘We’d like to offer you a training contract starting in October next year.’

Nine years later, I’m still with the firm, specialising in personal injury. Lis retired in May and we’re still good friends.

The degree cost in all about £9,000; the LPC another £10,000. I paid for it out of my savings and my husband supported me. He said he saw it as an investment. Today, he says because of me getting a degree and becoming a professional, our children have a mother who is more rounded, educated and fulfilled.

It’s not just about the money: it’s my self-worth.

I work three days a week and, although I’m better paid than in the pet shop — my income has increased by about 200 per cent — my costs have gone up. I buy nicer clothes because I’m working in an office — the parrots wouldn’t have appreciated power dressing.

But it was definitely worth it. I really feel I’ve achieved something. I drive a Golf GTi now; before it was a Ford Focus.

I suffer very badly with imposter syndrome. I’m convinced that, at some point, someone will realise I didn’t really pass my degree and the LPC is wrong. But, yes, it’s nice to be able to say: ‘I am Vicki Dodge — I am a solicitor.’

I WAS MISERABLE AND NOW I’M MORE CREATIVE

Nena Foster, 41, lives in South London with her husband and their two children, aged eight and five.

BEFORE: University lecturer 

AFTER: Nutritional chef 

I’ve always loved learning, and studying and, after doing a PhD in public health, I became a university lecturer in London. But I started to find it soul-destroying. Some students shouldn’t have been there. The lowest point was when I was trying to teach epidemiology to students who didn’t understand basic maths.

In 2013, when I was 32, I got a job as a consultant for a small public sector firm. It was much better paid than academia, yet I didn’t really fit the corporate mould. The work was relentless; doing the same thing week in, week out. I thought I can’t keep doing this!

I was nearly 40, I had two kids and felt miserable. But I was also a bit embarrassed. I’d spent 13 years of my life working hard at academic-type jobs and I was about to chuck it all away — and for what?

Nena Foster, 41, (pictured) who  lives in South London, took voluntary redundancy from her university lecturer career to invest in becoming a nutritional chef 

I was on maternity leave and spending more time in the kitchen, getting into nutrition. I wanted to feel better after my second child than I’d felt after my first, when I was exhausted and run-down and addicted to sugar and coffee. I had always loved cooking, but never considered it as a career — until then.

In August 2016, I went back to work four days a week and signed up for a course called The Natural Chef, at the College of Naturopathic Medicine, which was a one-day-a-week commitment.

Four months in, I took voluntary redundancy from my old job. It was the best thing I ever did because now I could really invest time in my new career.

I was required to do 100 hours of internships as part of the course — in the end I did about 170.

My first ‘minternship’ was in a cookery school in Bath for a week; then I volunteered to be a chef on a children’s summer camp, where I cooked for about 40 children.

I also interned for a chef who was running a festival, and helped out on photographic shoots with the vegetarian chef Anna Jones.

I washed up, chopped vegetables and did a lot of running out to buy things from shops.

It was quite liberating to go back to the start, where the only expectation of me was to keep the kitchen clean and make sure someone had what they needed.

Nena (pictured) revealed she earns less than in her previous job, but now enjoys her job and has a better quality of life

There used to be days in my old job when I had back-to-back meetings and so many emails I’d have to get up and walk out because it was so overwhelming. I thought: ‘This is so much nicer. No one is being egotistical or narcissistic.

But you had to know your place, and there were times when I was told to go and fetch yet another ingredient when I’d be muttering under my breath. But I didn’t take offence just because I was older and being bossed around. I thought: ‘This is what I’ve got to do.’

The internships also gave me a chance to explore different aspects of cooking. I’d never heard of food styling before!

Three years on, I’m running cookery classes, developing recipes and working on cook books. I don’t feel I’ve lost any standing because I don’t go by the title ‘Dr’ every day.

True, I’m only earning about half what I used to earn — but I can survive. I don’t buy as many clothes because I don’t need them. Also, I was buying things such as shoes and bags to make myself feel better about having a job I hated.

I’m now doing a job I enjoy and have a better quality of life. My daughter started in reception class recently, and I was able to work around her hours.

Overall, I’ve learned fulfilment in other areas of my life is more important to me than a big salary.

The course cost £10,000. I helped to pay for it by doing some freelance consulting work. I’m also lucky to have a partner who could help cover the bills. He knew I was miserable and wanted me to find something I enjoyed doing. And obviously he gets benefits — all this healthy food!

I’m still finding my feet but despite Covid, October has been my busiest month ever. My income may well grow in the future.

I am slowly building up a business doing something I love, and that is hugely rewarding.

I HAD MY OWN YOGA STUDIOS BUT I WANTED TO HELP PEOPLE IN PAIN 

Denise Ferguson, 50, lives in Fareham, Hampshire, with husband Steven, 52, who works for an IT company. They have three children aged 27, 22 and 17.

BEFORE: Yoga teacher 

AFTER: Physiotherapist 

Denise Ferguson, 50, (pictured) who lives in Fareham, Hampshire, decided to become a physiotherapist after meeting yoga clients suffering with bad backs

Heading into my 40s, I was a very successful yoga teacher. I had a couple of yoga studios and I was training international teachers and running one-to-one classes — a dream career to many.

But many of my clients were really suffering with bad backs, necks or shoulders and I wanted to help them more than I could with yoga alone. Remembering how much I’d been helped by physiotherapists when I suffered a terrible riding accident, I decided to become a physio.

In 1997, aged 27, I broke my neck falling off a horse. I was mum to a five-year-old and training to be a riding instructor when my stirrup leather broke and the horse bolted.

I was lucky the only long-term effect is I can’t turn my head fully to the right. But I had a lot of pain and trauma — and it was physiotherapists who got me to walk, move and feel strong again.

So I went to evening classes to do a biology A-level — you only need one A-level as a mature student to apply for university.

You had to have work experience to apply for the degree, though. My minternships were spent shadowing physiotherapists at the hospital where I had been a patient; spending time with Gary Sandler, who was the head physio at Portsmouth Football Club; and with Dominic Dentry, who had been the physio for the Team GB gymnastics squad.

Denise (pictured) now works in a GP surgery three days a week, earning £25 an hour in comparison to earning £20-£30 as a yoga teacher

In 2011, at 41, I was in my first year of a physiotherapy degree at Southampton University. It was daunting. I’d never been academic and it was harder than I’d imagined — the thought of writing essays at that age! And I had a big fear of failure. No one in my family considered themself academic. I’d left school at 16, and there I was doing a degree.

I was one of about four or five mature students in a class of 26 people aged 18 and 19, but we were probably a bit more focused than the youngsters.

Also, when we did work placements, such as on the stroke ward, people tended to trust you more if you were older.

The disadvantage was we had more home commitments. It wasn’t just me, myself and my books. It was me, myself, my books and the kids and cooking their tea and making sure they did their homework. But I did it — and then got a job as a muscular skeletal physiotherapist for NHS Solent, which was a massive confidence boost. I couldn’t believe it! At 44, I had letters after my name and a job.

I now work in a GP surgery three days a week, run my own business and help out with an ice hockey team at weekends.

I’ve got a nicer car — a Range Rover; I used to have a Beetle — but the biggest thing is we managed to buy our own house with the help of my salary.

As a yoga teacher you can earn £20-£30 a class; now I earn £25 an hour and £50 an hour for my private work.

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