Interning is not Working for Free

Overhearing a recent CBC Radio 1 (Canada) discussion of Internships, capped an increasing awareness of the idea of ‘working for free’ to break the Catch-22 facing some many young graduates – needing a job to get experience but needing experience to get that first job. Someone, somewhere at some point came up with the idea of ‘interning’ to prime one’s career with that essential first experience. Now, it isn’t, as media discussions and opposing editorials present, a matter of being a good or bad idea but ensuring that if you do intern you obtain meaningful experience worthy of your resumé. As a former executive – and more importantly a sales professional – I’d like to offer some suggestions for those considering interning that will increase the prospects of it being a positive and valuable experience that will get you the paying job you desire.

“What if I work for free?”
In the dispirited gloom of your parent’s basement that follows, “You just don’t have the experience we’re looking for…” heard over and over, offering to “work for free” starts looking pretty attractive as a path to experience, some experience, any experience. It isn’t, so don’t.

It is fatal to offer, in desperation, “to work for free just for the experience“. Even worse is to append, ” I’ll do anything…” to your appeal. Worse still, if your offer is accepted (almost always a begrudging “Well, okay *sigh*, but I’m doing you such a huge favour.“). Doing so, essentially establishes your ‘worth’ at zero and it’s impossible to recover from that. To work without pay might seem free initially, but it will cost you money; any expense you incur interning that wouldn’t otherwise arise (Eg. travel, lunches, work clothes, tools you use, even the ‘opportunity cost’ of your time) is an investment that you’re making to obtain experience. Worse still, that ‘huge favour’ can be readily withdrawn at the first sign of any costs attached to you being there. And I assure you that such costs will arise. Recognize that you’re making an investment not just in yourself but in the business where you intern.

Don’t be mistaken in thinking that finding an internship will be any less difficult  than finding a job. Consider how resistant you are to free offers on the internet, from sales clerks and strangers on the street who open with, “Psst! Can I interest you in…”  ‘Free’  triggers suspicions about hidden costs, tricks or trouble. Often, the unstated or unacknowledged thinking behind such appeals is what salesmen call the ‘puppy dog approach’ and crack dealers call “having a little taste…” They’re hoping that you’ll come to like the product, because they can’t otherwise close the deal. And branding yourself as a salesman or crack dealer can’t be good.

But, if you’ve concluded that interning is the best (perhaps only) option to breaking into the job market – and with youth unemployment (15-24) running about 14% in Ontario it just might be – then the idea is worthy of serious thought and careful planning. The key objective is position yourself as an INTERN (capital letters) not as an entry-level employee they happened to get for free. While you’ll likely be doing entry-level work, that can’t be all you get to do. At a minimum being an INTERN should give you the opportunity to shadow, observe and interact with senior staff well beyond the entry-level pay-grade, to receive regular feedback on the contributions you make, and to expect a reference letter at the end of your Internship. You should also be prepared to submit a report at the end of your Internship.

Creating an Intern Agreement

A verbal contract is only as good as the paper it’s written on.” (Samuel Goldwyn) If the idea of presenting an agreement to an executive causes you to blanche, then there’s much work to do. A written agreement is essential. First, drafting such a document forces you to consider all the aspects of interning and, hopefully, how you will resolve any issues that might arise. The agreement is where you ‘brand’ yourself as an INTERN and establish what experience must be included for the internship to have mutual value.  Most importantly, having and presenting such a document to an executive transforms your relationship from that of desperate unemployed unexperienced supplicant to INTERN. I cannot stress this enough, and will deal with this at greater length.

For the moment, however, here is a short list  in the form of questions to consider. These questions are essential to the Intern Agreement that you will ultimately present. In future articles, I’ll elaborate on each of the questions and add to the list.

Planning an Internship

  1. What experience have you identified as necessary but lacking on your resumé? One source of answers is the interviews you’ve had. What were you told? You did ask, didn’t you? If not, consider adding that question to the, “So, have you any questions for us?” opportunity at the end of the interview.
  2. Where can you get the kind of experience you need? Again, your job search should include inquiry calls to prospective employers asking what experience they require or value highly. Oh, and if they tell you, don’t forget to ask why. You’ll need to know that when planning your internship. Remember, there’s a lot of places where you can get relevant experience not directly related to your career aspirations.
  3. What are you willing to do as a intern? ‘Anything’ is not an answer. I doubt there’s a business without overloaded staff. Sure, it’s fine to fetch coffee, print and collate and put out the trash but what other work are you able and willing to do, such as proofread reports, format documents on the computer, prepare agar tubes, archive documents, update files.
  4. How long are you willing (or can afford) to intern? There are two parts to this, avoiding, “You’re still here?” and creating, “What you’re leaving?” Specifying a term, lets you create an evaluation point, enables scheduling of key experiences.