Unpaid Internships: Worth the Effort?

To get a job you need experience. But how do you get experience in the first place? If you don’t want to join the armed forces (since you don’t like being awakened by a bugle at dawn) you will likely try to find an internship where you can get relevant experience.

It used to be that getting a coveted internship with a company meant you had a good chance of eventually getting a permanent job there as long as things went well and you did not burn the office down. Not so anymore. Many college students still looking for summer work in their field of interest or graduates looking for their first permanent job have joined companies as unpaid interns to get experience. As a matter of fact, with the latest Internet explosion going on in the NY area, startup tech firms, especially those that have not landed any funding yet, have been willing to hire unpaid help. In some cases, these go-getter students and graduates have even taken on two or more internships at a time.

Startups as well as traditional companies are looking for assistance marketing their brand to the twenty-something consumers through social media delivery channels such as Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. Who better to help target to these markets than college interns? These new players in the workforce can blog and tweet to their peers on their own time without actually setting foot in the company’s offices. The intern gets good experience and can still use the remaining hours of the day to try to find paid work. Sounds good right? Well, not as rosy as it sounds.

The economy is still depressed, which limits the number of paid hires a company can absorb. Instead they continue to maximize the use of free labor as long as they can get away with it. There are six conditions that the Department of Labor deems must be met by for-profit companies hiring an intern. Of these six guidelines, the most important condition is that the internship should benefit the intern. Additionally, the hiring of the intern should not displace a potential paid employee.

In many cases, to help make sure the company stays within the law, an intern can receive college credit if the experience/training is deemed creditworthy.  Unfortunately, this sets up a serious catch-22: colleges or universities may require you to have an internship to graduate, but to get the internship approved, the school REQUIRES you to pay for the credits as if you were taking a course on campus!  Double whammy-everybody wants a piece of you!

Since working for a startup or a potentially high growth company has a high cool-rating, many interns are willing to work for nothing just to be associated with a hot company and get the company name on their resume. As a result, the chance of an intern getting a paid job after paying their dues has decreased from the higher employment intern rate we saw a few years ago.  There are also potential financial constraints that need to be considered to see if you can even afford to take an unpaid internship in your field of interest. For example, if your internship requires you to be at the company a good percentage of the time and you live far enough away that you need to take transportation to the job, that may be too much of a strain on your wallet .  Also, for some it means putting off leaving the nest, and if you or your parents feel you should have your own place, you may not be able to make it work–no pun intended.

So what do you do if you cannot find a paid position? You take the internship, and hope you are one of the few to eventually get hired in a paid position that you want. To supplement your income you might need to take on a part-time paid position in a field that is not your first choice but allows you to pursue your passion. In the meantime, when you are not working for free (or sleeping), network like crazy–or maybe start your own cool company and hire some interns to help you get off the ground. Oh, and here’s a tip, make sure you have lots of coffee and R/C helicopters on hand. You got to have some fun too.

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