In this struggling economy, internships are important, perhaps even vital, for college students. I don’t know if there is a perfect internship, but I do know that it would be wise to stay away from unpaid ones. In general, unpaid internships are a bad investment.
Ariana Arghandewal wrote on her website MyInternSh*t.com (now defunct), “If supervisors pay their interns, they can’t let them sit around and do nothing.” There’s only one exception to working free, and that’s if you are absolutely working your dream job.
I have had two unpaid internships in my lifetime, and they were with the Houston Rockets and Houston Astros sports franchises. I grew up breathing the Rockets and Astros, so I had no problem “giving back” to two organizations that gave me numerous memories and helped develop me as a person. With the Rockets, I helped the basketball operations staff evaluate players for the 2007 and 2008 NBA drafts. The work I provided helped them select Aaron Brooks, Carl Landry and Donté Greene.
As a high school senior with the Astros, I was in the advertising, sales and broadcast operations department. I was the youngest intern. Others were juniors or seniors in college and were in their mid-20s. Surprisingly, I ended up hating the experience because I sat around the majority of the time hoping my supervisor would give me something to do. I was so bored that I’d get excited when she asked me to mail a letter.
The internship came with the benefits: I got to meet players and attend special events. But looking back at it three years later, I’m glad I didn’t intern in sports during college.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban shares insight on his blog: “The law says that interns have to be paid unless they are performing work that is of no value to the organization; i.e. helps them in some way but we get no benefit from their work. Thus we would have to create work that is useless to us if we choose not to pay them.” According to the U.S. Department of Labor, you must receive college credit or be paid for a true internship experience. If any of the below stipulations are not true, then you must be paid.
1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school.
2. The training is for the benefit of the trainee.
3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation.
4. The employer providing the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded.
5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period.
6. The employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.
Two, three and four are usually broken during the course of a formal, unpaid internship. Your employer is the one who gives you the connections and shows you the ropes of the industry — so, youngsters, don’t sue because it is professional suicide.
A business that can’t make a profit off an intern making minimum wage is not a very sustainable company. If it can’t pay you now, what makes you think you’ll land a full-time job where you’re forced to be paid in the future? If you do get an offer at the end of your term, the chances of it being good are slim.
During these tough economic times, many managers are looking to free labor for their own benefit. They’ll forge a great relationship and provide good recommendations about you, but when you need their help (like a job) in the future, they’ll turn the other way. Now is the most dangerous of times for such frauds. Make sure you do your due diligence about any potential employer.
The earlier you start looking, the better. That means freshmen should start now. Everyone should begin his or her summer internship search in September. Try your best to find something worthwhile.
Before accepting any unpaid positions, perform a cost-benefit analysis. Your expenses will add up: transportation, housing, food. It’s not just about money. Think about all the opportunity costs — you may have to deal with loneliness and cooking yourself bad food.
The experience factor is the primary reason people work internships. People learn a skill that will help them in their future career. In the process, they hope to develop connections. But that’s not the most logical way to increase a network base. You should always be networking, the moment you wake up every day. If you’re working an unpaid internship for connections, don’t waste your time. There are other ways to make them.
The paid positions are out there. I got my first paid internship at the age of 16 — my initial radio gig had a nice weekly wage. Think outside the box in finding what suits your strengths and how you can best utilize them. Being entrepreneurial costs next to nothing. For example, if you love to write, but can’t afford to invest so much time for an unpaid position at a local newspaper, contact people who have the resources to pay for your work: like a doctor or lawyer. You’ll be surprised at how many kids write their doctors’ blogs and update content on their websites. Not only is the doctor able to connect more with his or her patients through this venture, but the intern gets great experience and cash for the value he or she provides (I actually gave this advice to a friend of mine, and he is extremely satisfied with the results).
Don’t sweat not landing anything though. It’s also important to have some time to enjoy yourself. There will be plenty of 80-hour workweeks later in life. You’d make much more money waiting tables than you would at an unpaid internship fetching coffee. There are better opportunities out there. Just keep your antennae up and find them. Enjoy whatever you do and try to be the best at it. Unfortunately, I have never been good at applying my healthy words of perspective to my own life, but that’s another story.
Unpaid internships can be good, and you can have a great experience working one. After a couple of weeks, interns get to be good at what they do. Companies benefit from an unpaid intern’s work. But as the Joker in “The Dark Knight” said, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”
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