Unpaid Intern: To Be or Not to Be?

Over coffee recently, I listened as a soon-to-be new graduate lamented the fact there were few job prospects for somebody in her field. She was asking for advice on whether or not to accept an unpaid internship in order to get her foot in the door. To help with her decision, I laid out my personal experience as a soon-to-be graduate. By the fourth year of college, I had a diverse and storied portfolio of part time and seasonal positions under my belt:
  • Sorted Christmas overflow mail for Canada Post; learned the meaning of the phrase “go postal.”
  • Took messages in a call answering center whose clients ranged from restaurants to call girls (yes, really); learned you have to pay really close attention to whose line you pick up before you answer the question, “What’s on the menu?”
  • Sold encyclopedias door-to-door; learned some people will buy anything.
  • Solicited participants for market research studies; learned some people will say anything.
  • Flipped burgers and pushed French fries; learned some people will eat anything.
  • Painted house exteriors with College Pro Painters; learned the top of a 45-foot ladder is not the place to be when the wind picks up from Lake Ontario.
While my “career” path thus far proved I was willing to tackle anything, it did not give me a whole lot of marketable skills for a Mass Communications and Computer Science graduate who would soon be launched unceremoniously into a job market recovering from 9.6% unemployment rates. In my final year of university, my fortunes turned. I was offered an unpaid internship with a university-based research group. Through this internship, I learned how to design research studies; how to prepare grant submissions; how to source hard-to-find information & resources that aren’t available in the college library; how to edit research papers for publication; how to collaborate with a team of professionals who had conflicting interests and perspectives; and how to think critically about complex issues and prepare cohesive arguments so I could be heard above the voices of 15 intellectuals. I also developed a network of connections who were able to help me when it was time to land my first full-time job as a Policy Analyst with the Ontario government. Many successful CEO’s started their careers as interns. One of my favorite stories involves Robert Herjavec, who waited tables while working for free for six months in order to get practical experience in the computer industry. As he described it in an interview with TVO’s Paula Todd, “I realized nobody was going to pay me to learn the skills I needed in order to get ahead.” He went on to earn millions from the sale of his internet security software, and is best known as one of the venture capitalists on the Dragon’s Den. I have often heard the argument unpaid internships are exploitative, they take advantage of students. I tend to disagree. I say tend, because I am completely against the pay-to-work model offered by Dream University, in which wealthy off-spring pay thousands of dollars for the chance to attach a corporate name to their resume. Some internships are better than others, and the deciding factor is not the money, but the kind of experience offered. A well-designed internship can provide invaluable professional growth opportunities. In an interview in Fortune online, Christi Pedra, President and CEO of Siemens Hearing describes what I would consider an ideal internship model:

“First…we make a big deal for our managers to get interns. Department managers submit a proposal for a project that can be completed in 10 weeks. It must have a measurable outcome and benefit to the business. The best proposals are granted interns…Second, we make it challenging. We give interns assignments that matter to them and to us…Third, we make it real…for example, our interns simplified manufacturing tool kits, audited and redefined work instructions, developed internal communication campaigns and validated software.”


I recommended to my young friend she seriously consider the internship offer. Yes it would mean a few more months as a part-time waitress to pay the bills, but it could also represent the turning point in her career. As Pedra describes it, “Ten weeks ago, they entered as students, and now they will be leaving us as professionals.” There are hundreds of links to sites that offer advice and listings for both paid and unpaid internships. Here are some of my favorites: Career Edge: Internships for New Graduates (Canada) Ability Edge: Internships for People with Disabilities (Canada) Career Bridge: Internships for Internationally Trained Professionals (Canada) Campus Access: Directory of Internship Programs (Canada) International Youth Program Internships United Nations Internships USA Internships for International Students CollegeRecruiter Internship Listings (USA) Interns Over 40 (USA) USAID Volunteer Internships (USA) Karen Siwak is a Canadian certified resume strategist with 10+ years of experience in coaching & counseling. Read more » articles by this approved career expert | Click here » if you’re a career expert Photo credit: Shutterstock

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