That’s right, I’m talking to you, students and recent graduates! If you continue to think of internships as “free labor,” so too will companies.
Those are all you — not companies — and I could include many, many more examples. Why are you devaluing yourselves?
Let’s take a few steps back and talk about the purpose of internships — the real, originally-intended purpose. Internships are meant to be educational in nature and supplement what you’re learning in college classrooms. In class, you’re learning all about theory. Internships help you put those theories into practice. In order to effectively accomplish this, you typically do real work for a real company. I have always been under the impression that this is a good thing, yet today’s students and recent graduates (you) have somehow translated this “real world experience” into “free labor.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Just because your internship is paid, doesn’t make it a good program. And, just because your internship is unpaid doesn’t make it an illegal, brand-damaging blight on the company.
As a disclaimer, I do believe if an organization can afford to pay its interns that it should do so. However, many small businesses and nonprofits want to give back to the community by offering internships and can’t afford to pay. Does that make them evil? No, not in my opinion.
Willy Franzen of OneDayOneJob.com and OneDayOneInternship.com (both of which you should check out) and I got into it the other day about the relationship between paid internships and the quality of the overall internship experience. As you can see above, Willy believes they are linked, but I disagree. I can say from my own experience that my only paid internship was the worst of the five I had in college. Almost every other young professional I’ve spoken with confirms that their unpaid internship experiences changed their careers for the better. (And might I add that I’ve had many paying jobs that sucked big time!) To me, there’s no true correlation.
Want to know what I think really made my unpaid internships — and those of the students/grads I’ve spoken with — better? (I assume you do, or you wouldn’t be reading this!) The structure of the program itself and what I put into it. Without several core components — mentorship, learning, networking, work samples, and recognition — I would have walked away from the experience thinking I had wasted my time. Paid or unpaid, doesn’t matter.
Internships, like college, are an investment in your future career. As CNN.com bluntly pointed out this week, internships are the new entry-level job. Read into that statement what you will, but I think it means that employers expect you to come out of college with more than knowledge of theories. That’s just how our job market is today.
So, stop referring to internships as “free labor,” and maybe companies will do the same.
Update: Read Mark Babbit of YouTern’s response on their blog here.