The Internship Game—Step Up or Get Left Out

Internships are almost a right of passage to getting hired. The thirst for them has stirred businesses of every stripe to offer internship opportunities, particularly unpaid ones. 

There’s an upside and a downside to unpaid internships. So you need to know how to get the most “up” out of your choices. 

Make your free labor pay. 

The CBS Sunday Morning program ran an eye-opening segment called, “Internships: A foot in the door?” 

Lauren Berger, blogger known as the Intern Queen, made this telling comment: 

“The most common question that employers are asking in that job interview after graduation is, ‘Where did you intern?’ And if the person next to you even had one internship and you didn’t, there’s a good chance that that other person is gonna land the opportunity….” 

Internships are like any other commodity. If the demand for internships is greater than the supply, then economic principles take over. Businesses have work they can’t or won’t pay for, but if they can get it done for free, they’re in. Voila, the unpaid internship. 

Here’s how internships are playing out according to the Sunday Morning segment:

“In a 2010 survey, 42% of college students who graduated with an internship on their resume received a job offer, compared to just 30% for students with no intern experience. And, those graduates with internships received a higher starting salary, about $42,000, compared to just $35,000 for those without.”

It’s not, however, any old internship that’s going to deliver positive results. It’s only internships that add to your skill set and experience base. So if you’re going to work for free, you have to get marketable value from it. The only one who can convert the asset-value of free work into paid work is you.

No plan. No chance.

If you go into the internship race without a plan, you’ll likely end up losing. When you go after an unpaid internship you’re making an investment, not in dollars but in time. And you know that time is money.

Internships are the starter kit for your career. When you’re selecting an internship, you need to be specific about what you want from the experience. After all, you’ll be using your internship experience on your resume, so it needs to give you outcomes that will mean something to a recruiter.

Select internships that provide opportunities to:

  • Learn and/or apply knowledge that aligns with your career interests (i.e., IT, customer service, marketing, teaching, finance)
  • Lead, work independently, and/or assume responsibility for outcomes
  • Build your interpersonal skills, confidence, and experiences
  • Meet and build relationships with all kinds of people (i.e, customers, vendors, leaders)

There are great internships, awful ones, and everything in between. Your job is to land the ones that will do the most for you.

Working for free is a luxury that not everyone can afford. This reality can be tough to swallow. 

In the Sunday Morning piece, here’s what Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a non-profit Washington think tank, explained:

 “…increasingly the top internships are going to kids from the top of the income ladder. ‘Who can afford to come to Washingtonand spend $4,000 on housing and food and then work without being paid? It is not the children of farm workers or factory workers or, you know, the children of people who are unemployed right now. It’s going to be upper middle class kids….’”

This reality intensifies the need for planning way ahead to get internships that fit and make you a more attractive candidate for the next work-for-free opportunity or that all important paid job.

Keep working

Internships aren’t just for college kids anymore. Unemployed workers abound. People used to working don’t like being idle. So, unpaid internships are in their line of sight too.

There is no better credential than meaningful work where you add value and demonstrate your commitment to your career. Even though there are arguments decrying unpaid internships, they’re here to stay. Now is the time to make them work for you.

Photo from Samuel Mann via Flickr