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Summer Internship: Career Opportunity or Cheap Labor?

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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.

World's Best Band Director mugJack 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.

Photo: Jeremy Bronson

Updated June 23, 2016 and originally published June 25, 2012.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

My son had an unpaid (4 weeks) internship between the 2nd and 3rd year of law school. It was invaluable for contacts and networking. Often times, that is worth much more than money.

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avatar 2 Luke Landes

Hi krantcents,

Did your son have another source of income during that time? Did he save up or have other help with expenses? The law industry is an example where internships are required, and law interns are sure to get valuable experience and make contacts. For the most part, they’re probably less likely to be taken advantage of than corporate management interns, but it could vary. It sounds like it was a good experience for your son.

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avatar 3 Anonymous

It is tough to work during law school and there were very few paid internships. He moved home and finished his third year locally. He reduced his expenses (tax free) which is better than income. The networking/contacts are invaluable.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

I always wondered why my friends accepted unpaid internships. Sometimes they counted as college credit, but that only meant they were paying the university or college to work. My college career strayed from the norm as I only worked one summer for free at an online news outlet that let me pitch ideas, interview sources and take time off when I wanted. I was fortunate/lucky.

I’d like to see unpaid internships go the way of the dodo bird though. If you’re good at something and you value your time, don’t do it for free.

-Christian L.

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avatar 5 Anonymous

I think those statements above are a bit of a stretch – depending on the internship, chances are the student is really passionate about the industry and is willing to take the job in order to network and hopefully secure full time employment in the future.

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avatar 6 Anonymous

I have an engineering degree and unpaid internships in engineering are pretty much unheard of. I don’t have first hand experience with unpaid internships. I understand unpaid internships are more common in other fields. Whether or not you do them depends on whats the norm for your area. If unpaid internships are what everyone does then I’d do it to get valuable experience, but if paid internships are common then I wouldn’t do it for free.

I think internships are a great opportunity for both the intern and the employer. But of course the intern shouldn’t be treated as grunt labor and do nothing but to make copies and get coffee.

If the internship is free then I do think the employer has little right to expect a lot of hard work. The point isn’t to accomplish stuff for the employer but for the intern to learn and get experience. The employer still does get an opportunity to test out a future potential employee and thats a good benefit for them.

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avatar 7 Anonymous

I can’t speak to unpaid internships because while I was an intern I only got paid $1 less than full time staff accountants and I got overtime for any hours I worked above 40 hours. It was in public accounting though which is highly competitive to grab the best graduates from each graduating class.

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avatar 8 Anonymous

Great post, love the quotes by the Welch’s. My oldest worked PT for during the summer and school year as an intern for what has become her current employer while an undergrad. She impressed her boss so much that she was able to make her position FT and permanent. My middle one has a great unpaid internship this summer at the British Consulate here in Chicago. If nothing else great experience and a great resume builder. She was also able to apply to her university for a stipend so that helps. All in all these types of experience are in my opinion a vital part of the college experience and as you state can lead to good things post graduation.

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avatar 9 qixx

I worked in 2 unpaid internships (one a 2 month project and one 4 month full-time) while working toward my degree. The full-time one did pay an expense stipend to cover vehicle upkeep and training. $650 a month. Not bad for unpaid. I lived with family during the internship. After finishing and getting hired on i realized the stipend was there for everyone.

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