On a local radio call-in talk show today, the subject was “unpaid internships”. It’s been in the news a lot recently, and it seems to me that a lot of fairly unscrupulous companies are taking advantage of getting access to free labour under the guise of “unpaid internships”.
Full disclosure: A young German woman worked for me a few years ago as an (unpaid) intern. She sought out my company (Career Coaching International) and approached me about taking her on as a summer intern as part of her university program requirement. It was great to work with her and I tried to get her involved in all the different parts of the company. Based on that experience, I’m a big fan of the school-based intern approach. To come to grips with this issue, I believe we need to deconstruct this thing called “internship” and examine the component parts.
Thinking about my career as a series of “stepping stones” where any specific internship is just another stepping stone to some (admittedly probably fuzzy) goal, we have to ask ourselves: “What do I want to get out of an internship, as the person providing the labour”?
- real hands-on experience in some field, company, or industry of interest to me;
- suitable amount of time in the position to develop some perspective and competency;
- build my network through getting to know other people in that company and field;
- possible broader education experiences (conferences, training, etc.) as available;
- some minimum payment if possible. Note this is not a critical requirement.
That’s pretty much about it, as the job-doer. So, once I address those elements to at least a reasonable degree, the best career strategy is to move on or move up — either out into the broader industry to look for similar (paying) roles where I can leverage my new found skill set, taking on other different (possibly intern) positions where I can gain new skills and insights, or stay in the company and move (up) to a paid position.
And as the company manager, if I am reasonably ethical, I am trying to help out both my company and the individual by (1) providing a real role that needs to get done to someone new to the field; (2) helping that individual see how things “really work” through training, on-the-job experience, and selective mentoring; (3) getting real work done for the company that is valuable and useful, and (4) testing out a new individual to see if they might be a good fit for longer term employment with the company.
So, whether the internship position is paid or not paid is, to my way of thinking, not the real issue to grind down on. The real question from the intern position should be: am I (still) learning and gaining anything that I really value? If yes, then the “internship” is still valuable and you may want to continue in it.
If no, then it is time to move on. And if you are working for a decent manager, they will tell you the same thing. Or they will engage you in a “value” conversation to figure out how they can help you dial up the value you perceive from doing what you are doing. Or they will give you more things of real value to do. Even if they still can’t afford to pay you.
If they tell you anything else, they’re just using you as free labour, and they won’t ever be thinking of you as anything else. In which case, it is clearly time to leave. Your time and real career opportunities are much more valuable than that.