Should All Internships Be Paid?

This post is prompted by a news story I saw on NBCNews.com about the “End of the Unpaid Internship.

Last Thursday I spoke to I.T. students at a local professional college. The topic was “Proactive Career Strategies.”

Career Myths:

As part of my presentation, I cover are 3 career myths.

Myth 1: Career development occurs on the job only:
Truth 1: A career is the ongoing development of skills, attitudes, and relationships that lead you into and through various professional positions and objectives.

Myth 2: Career advancement is best gauged by incremental financial increases.
Truth 2: Career advancement will often require a “trade pay/prestige/position for opportunity” mentality.

Myth 3: Careers are linear in nature.
Truth 3: Careers are chaotic and fluid; adaptability is a key.

Let’s focus on the Truth #2. This is particularly pertinent to the issue of internships in general and specifically, unpaid internships.

Trading pay for opportunity.

For me, this is the critical factor in fast-tracking one’s career. It doesn’t necessarily mean unpaid internships, but it does mean assessing opportunity through more than a financial lens. In fact, I would content that, especially early on, the most effective lens to gauge your career advancement are skills and project responsibility.

It is one of the reasons I suggest that a small company typically provides greater opportunity than a large I.T. department. Typically, smaller organizations are less specific in your role and title. You are thrown into a category of computer professional that sees no distinction between network administration and programming. Therefore, you are asked to solve any and every problem that comes up.

If you like this type of thing – it’s a great way to go. If not, it is stressful, confusing, and may lead to burnout. I was more of the former – let me take on more than I can chew and I’ll learn while I burn!

It is long hours, connecting with other professionals who have those skills, and getting your arms deep into new technologies quickly and with a degree of confidence that you can learn them/adopt them quickly.

About Internships Specifically

I am bootstrapping a startup. Pulse Infomatics, Inc. is my new corporation focused on Executive Reporting and Document Automation. I am pushing into the Los Angeles market with plans to expand beyond – I have an Arizona client and am discussing a project with a company back east.

When I spoke for the college, I was asked by several of the students if I took on externs. They are required to give a certain number of free hours in a professional setting to complete their courses.

When I found out that it was unpaid, I told them I would consider it. However, the truth is, I am unlikely to do so. Unfortunately, I’ve read too many stories about lawsuits and seen a general bad attitude towards the idea of providing unpaid work.

While I do this all the time – ie: I take on pro bono projects or initiate unpaid projects with organizations I serve as a way to bolster my skills – there are many who view this as exploitation. For me, taking on interns or externs is simply too risky at this time.

Oh.. and before I hear me taking on pro bono/unpaid work is different because I am further in my career, I’ve done the same since I was a college student and had a minimum wage job. I’ll always do it and will never view it as exploitation.

My advice to the fledging I.T. professional – and even the more seasoned veteran who wants to more rapidly advance their career.. find pro bono projects. But beware calling them internships. Simply call them pro bono projects.

And you may need to be the one driving that relationship and outlining the work. In fact, I recommend it. You may find companies unwilling to take on internships in the traditional sense due to lawsuits and perception.

Making Your Internship Work For You

I do believe you can be exploited at an internship. To that end, I offer a couple ideas on making your internship or externship as valuable as possible.

  • Clarify the type of projects you will work on and the skills you will learn:
    The idea of an internship is not simply putting a company name on your resume. It is much more critical that you be provided some meaningful projects to work on. Find out what technologies and skills you will likely develop and how they plan to train you.
  • Define work hours that work for you:
    Listen, it may not be feasible for you to work 40 hours a week at an internship. You may only have 10 hours per week. I understand certain schooling may require you to perform a certain number of hours within a certain timeframe. Of course, you must meet those obligations.
  • Think entrepreneurial:
    Whether you are in school or not, you can find or create an internship. You may just have to call it something else. Pro bono work has been done by most professions for year. Schools, charitable organizations, churches, etc. all have needs much like any business but might not have much money. These places allow for a degree of latitude and flexibility, while providing GREAT opportunities to develop talent. Make them a client and provide them great value.

I’d love your thoughts on the topic.

Should all internships be paid? Have you traded pay for opportunity and made it work for you?

One thought on “Should All Internships Be Paid?

  1. As one who works in the entertainment community, I’ve seen many companies use & abuse interns just to get free labor. They have no intention of hiring these people, as they just keep moving onto other interns. I personally would never hire anybody for “free labor”. If they are putting their time & skills to use, they deserve something for that time. On the other side of that, I have worked for free, with the idea of a payoff; work down the road, a good credit for a resume, or in trade for another service, etc. But I pick and choose those opportunities very carefully, and for the most part they have helped advance my career. So, the advice is, watch for the “users” out there, and the ones that can actually help you. If you have a talent or a skill, someone will pay you for that skill or talent.

What do you think?