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A case for unpaid internships: you reap what you sow

Written by Guest Author · 5 min read >

A case for unpaid internships: you reap what you sow

By: Guest Author

Your grandparents may have taken on apprenticeships or shadowed a local tradesman in order to learn the craft, but today this universal experience takes on another name: the unpaid internship. It’s something most young people have had or are anticipating to face in their career track, yet most of us still don’t really comprehend just why we have to do it.

It goes something like this: you’ve gotten to the point in your university career where you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but you come to find out that you must complete an internship before you can step into the bright light that is your dream job. Maybe it’s a part of your graduation requirement, maybe you just need something to fill that “experience” gap on your resume, but either way the question in any young person’s mind is just why exactly they should be doing a job for no compensation after working three or four years towards a degree.

In tackling this complicated issue, we’ve outlined a couple of reasons unpaid internships are important to the way we learn and strive for career success today, as well as a few ways you can squeeze the most lemonade out of the lemon that is working for free when you’re a broke young person.

An internship is not a job (it should be better for you)

Let’s start to understand this “unpaid internship” phenomenon by going back to the idea of your grandparent’s apprenticeships. When you dig a little deeper, it’s apparent that internships are really just a broader and newfangled way of defining the apprenticeship. Whether it be an apprenticeship or an internship, a company or tradesman is not just hiring someone to complete a given task, they’re taking someone on who they believe has sufficient talent and drive to help complete a task, and in return the company takes responsibility for teaching the apprentice the tools of the trade.

Let’s put it this way: when you are hired to fill a position your boss is going to expect you to know how to do what you’ve been hired to do. It’s not a learning experience for you, you’re being given money to complete a set task, and if you want to pick up additional experience along the way then that’s on your time. Some companies might afford you extra opportunities to attend conferences, take workshops, or the like, but for the most part the learning process is on you.

However as an intern, your supervisor understands that you aren’t yet a master at your trade, in fact that’s precisely why you’re doing an internship in the first place. They are agreeing to teach you the trade just as you agree to put in effort and come to work. You don’t expect to get paid to sit in class – in fact you pay your college – so why would you expect to be paid to come to work and get exposure to the business you want to enter? When you understand that an internship is effectively not work, but an immersed learning experience, the whole “unpaid” part starts to make a lot more sense.

If some internships offer compensation, why wouldn’t others?

Some companies will pay you to make coffee, others will pay you to make copies, the worst will pay you to fetch dry cleaning…you get our drift. While it may be enticing to take on the internship that’s offering fiscal compensation, it’s not necessarily always the best opportunity for you. Career Advisor Raghav Haran encourages young people to stop being impatient and to consider the long-term payouts rather than the short term. Often times the best companies don’t offer compensation because they want driven, talented interns who want to be there, not just those who want to make a few extra bucks and treat the gig like a summer job. Which brings us to our next point:

Big name doesn’t always equal big payout

Now that we’ve dived into why taking a paid internship might not be in your best interest, let’s talk about getting the bang for your buck, or your refusal of the bucks if you will. It makes sense that most young people think the best internship they can get would be with a big name company, but that isn’t always the case. Similar to the compensation issue, focusing on the short-term payout of impressing friends and family by working at a Fortune 500 won’t always give you the best payout in the long run.

There’s a couple reason for this, the first being that you need something to put under that fancy name in your resume, and sifting through paperwork won’t do the trick. At smaller companies and in start-up environments, you’ll get to sit in on and participate in much more of the action, meaning you’ll pick up a lot of tangible skills that you can market to employers. That’s important because while a fancy name will draw your recruiter’s attention, having no skills to show for it will you get you right back out the door quicker than you can name drop your boss’s boss’s boss.

At a startup, or other small enterprise, you’re often working hand in hand with the founders and executive team, meaning you’ll get stellar recommendations (if you do a good job), on the ground knowledge of the hottest topic skills of your field, and can produce an impressive list of knowledge gained from what may be a short period of work.

If you play it right, you can get your 2-3 years of experience in as little as 3 months

If you’re in your 20’s, you probably still feel your heart sink at the phrase “x years of experience required.” That’s because most of us aren’t even old enough to acquire that much experience, but there’s also a loophole to this. You don’t need to have worked a job for 2-3 years consistently, you just need an equitable amount of experience as someone who has worked for 2-3 years. This is where working an unpaid internship can really pay off.

While the idea of working 45 hours a week for no compensation might make your head spin, it might also make you excited to learn that you can bypass barriers to entry at certain jobs by working these hours for as little as three months in the right environment. Many office settings are made up of shorter hours and longer deadlines, meaning much of the time in the office is spent posterizing and filing daily tasks. But, if you choose to complete an internship in the right environment (say, a startup for instance) you’ll find a much faster paced, higher demand environment that allows you to finesse skills in a much shorter period of time.

If you’re going to work for no pay, work for it

It might be counterintuitive, but if you’re going to work for free you might as well make the most of it. If you come to work everyday and find that you’re accomplishing and learning little to nothing, it’s a waste of your uncompensated time. But if you’re actively engaging with projects, picking up new skills, and building leadership and confidence in a business environment, then you’ll learn that the experience is priceless. Finding value in the social norm of building work experience without compensation before you can actually get paid is crucial to maximizing your potential in your career field.

One of the best places to get these kinds of skills, and do it in a short time frame (say your 3 month summer holiday) is in a startup environment. At Eventerprise, Young Guns (our word for interns) from all over the world work in a fast-paced, goal-driven, agile environment. The program focus is on career development and digital skill building, and we help Young Guns define their own goals and project focus areas. We help young people build the skills they need to succeed in their given career track, and then give them the chance to equip them. We also give them advice to find funding so they can finance the experience, so no one is left out in the cold. In return, we gain the insight and talent of young minds that help us expand our digital platform across the globe. We’d say if you’re going to create an internship program, or do an unpaid internship program, you’d better weigh it for all its worth.

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