When I decided to add a minor as an undergraduate, music management (a cross between non-profit management and music business), the program required me to take an internship at a non-profit arts organization. I took advantage of my university’s career services to find an organization that would be appropriate for me, and I quickly found a group I was already familiar with.
At this point, I don’t remember if it was a paid internship or not. If it was paid, the pay I received would not have been enough to cover transportation to and from the office location. Most likely, it was an unpaid internship as most are, particularly in non-profit. Nevertheless, I liked the organization, made good connections with some of the top people in this particular field, and was invited to work for the organization full-time, which I did, after graduation.
Jack and Suzy Welch, one of whom was the CEO of General Electric for many years while the other is the former editor of the Harvard Business Review, published an opinion piece about summer internships. The point was to emphasize the importance of working for free in order to give young interns an advantage within a competitive sea of potential undergraduate recruits.
Here is an excerpt of the couple’s advice to today’s competitive interns.
Sure, the cheerful hiring people might have assured you that your internship is designed to introduce you to the company’s wonderful staff and culture and help you gain valuable industry experience, which is all well and good. Take that stuff in. But the bottom line is that, whether you’re working at an investment bank or a radio station, your summer internship should be more about giving than getting. Indeed, it should primarily be about you giving a helluva performance, over-delivering, making an impression with your insightful, unexpected ideas and terrific, sweat-the-details kind of output that prompts people to say, “Holy Cow, this kid really wants it…”
Our second “little” piece of advice is both easier and simpler. Be likable. Just that. Fun, upbeat, friendly, authentic, filled with positive energy, happy, agreeable, chit-chatty about sports and the weather and The Avengers, or frankly, whatever everyone at your company likes to be chit-chatty about. Get in the game and play, even literally, if there’s a softball game to be had. Let people know you. Let them hear you laugh. Let them see your humanity…
Finally, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention one last summer to-do item, which is not to take place at work but rather in the privacy of your own cheap rental. The pastor and author Terry A. Smith makes the case that people are happiest when they are working in their “Area of Destiny” — that gorgeous piece of emotional and intellectual real estate that exists at the intersection of what you’re uniquely good at and what deeply interests and excites you.
Overall, the advice is sound, not just for internships but for making the most out of any career at any point in your life.
But not every employer sees interns as being a valuable resource. The idea that one should always over-deliver can lead to a willingness to tolerate bad delegation. When an internship is highly in demand among students and graduates, employers put their interns at a great disadvantage. Menial work falls on the responsibility of the intern, whether it’s moving boxes in storage or data entry. One way to look at this is as an opportunity for the intern to suggest ideas to improve the processes behind some of the menial tasks, but that’s generally just an excuse to get overly-eager workers to handle the tasks no one else wants to do, and to have them accomplish the tasks without the expense of a salary or hourly wage.
Taking an unpaid internship shows an employer the following:
- You are willing to work for free, so you’ll probably accept a lower salary if you are eventually hired.
- Your willingness to work for free shows that either you are independently wealthy, living at home, or possibly mismanaging your finances. While this might not matter to a corporation, it establishes among your employers an impression about your life that might be incorrect.
- You are so eager to please, you can be asked and expected to do anything.
- You are willing to work illegally.
Unpaid internships may actually be illegal. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, unpaid internships are only legal if all of six criteria are met, and includes the stipulations that the internship position must not replace a paid worker’s position and that the employer must not receive any benefit from offering the internship position.
Yet, corporations offer unpaid internships that do not meet these criteria all the time. Internships are good ways for young people to learn more about corporate culture — and perhaps come to some of these realizations through first-hand observation — in an environment where career risk is low. It pains me to see corporations take advantage of interns’ desire to please.
For those with an internship this summer, consider saying “no” to some requests for tasks you wouldn’t want to do as an employee or would consider demeaning. In a perfect world, saying “no” to some requests within reason shows strength, not weakness. Get your boss’s coffee in the morning if doing so provides you with a few minutes alone to speak about the business and your career, but don’t be a gopher.
Updated June 23, 2016 and originally published June 25, 2012.