Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Interning: Don't do it for free

Build's New InternImage by Corey Holms via Flickr

There are certain industries (art/design, publishing, journalism, media, etc.) where entry into the field almost requires interning first. Don't get me wrong, working as an intern can help you gain loads of practical experience and hands-on learning. The problem is that companies now often want you to work for free.

Unfortunately, most of the time they find people willing to take a nonpaying internship, especially now since unemployment is so high--people think an internship is a stepping stone to a real job. Often it is, but just as often, it's not--it's just a way for businesses to get free assistants.

When I first started out in my field, I interned for a medium-sized company (in England, where I happened to be living at the time). The pay was minimal, but enough for me to live off (though I pretty much lived as cheaply as humanly possible during that time). Then, two weeks into the internship, they offered me a junior position, which came with a significant raise. Why? Because I worked hard, was good at what I did, and they wanted to keep me around. It's great when it works out that way.

The bad news is that it's usually not that easy. A couple years ago a younger friend of mine who was trying to break in to the same field (though in a different department) took a nonpaying internship at a similarly sized company, having heard that this company sometimes hired their interns after the internship time was up (six months in her case). Obviously, investing six months, even part time, at no pay for something you're not sure of is a risky venture, but she felt she didn't have many other options. Long story short, even though she was an enthusiastic, hard-working intern, at the end of the term they dropped her and got another kid to intern for free.

The thing to remember here is that if you do decide to take an internship, make sure it's really worth it.

Here are some tips for evaluating internships:
  1. Pay and hours: If they want you to work full time, there is no way in hell you should do it for free, but you should expect to get significantly lower than entry-level pay. If it's only a few hours a week, however, the experience might be worth it for a small amount or no pay.

  2. Learning experience: I say might above because sometimes all an intern gets to do is make copies, sort mail, and maybe do some simple administrative tasks like invoicing. For the most part, this was the case with my friend in the above example. To avoid having that happen to you, make sure you find out up front what sort of things you'll be doing. The best way to ask this, whether in a preliminary e-mail or at the interview, is simply to say, "Can you tell me what my responsibilities will be?" or "Can you describe a typical day for an intern here?" If it sounds like you won't be learning much except what kind of coffee everybody in the office likes, just say no.

  3. Opportunities for future employment: This is something else you just have to ask about. If you don't want to ask directly, you can say something like, "Have many of your interns gone on to work with the company in another capacity?" You should also try to find out the size of an internship's window of opportunity for other employment. Consider the following:

    • Will the things I learn here make me more desirable to other companies in the field? or What will this experience add to my resume other than the word "internship"?

    • Will I make valuable contacts within the industry? Will there be lots of opportunities for networking? Are any of these connections really likely to get me hired?

    • How well established is the company? If it is well established and known for quality work, will the name recognition help me out?

  4. Expenses and hassle: You need to weigh the value of the internship against the costs associated with it. If you snag that fancy internship in NYC or LA, can you afford to live there? Is the pay, experience, and promise of future opportunity worth the high cost of living and/or cost of commuting? Are they offering a living stipend in lieu of or in addition to regular pay?

With more and more businesses trying to snag free workers by offering unpaid internships, it's imperative that intern candidates don't give in to working for free. If (collectively) you do, you're not only hurting yourself, but everyone else looking for entry-level work too.

We want to hear from you. If you've interned before (or had an intern), leave a comment below and weigh in.

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