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Don’t Undervalue a Summer Internship!

May 4th, 2012

Years ago, the word “internship” suggested something innocent and positive. Internships, paid or unpaid, were mutual agreements that benefited both the interns and their employers. In many cases, the internship process represented a kind of right-of-passage for students who were confined by seasonal academic schedules but still wanted to dip their toes in the real working world before being tossed into the deep end after graduation.

Career counselors and parents supported the idea, and many unpaid internships were considered prestigious even if they came with high demands and didn’t pay a dime. Those were the old days.

In today’s recession-weary and somewhat more sophisticated world, the idea of a big bank or corporation “hiring” an eager, obedient young worker in exchange for nothing but the promise of prestige seems dysfunctional at best, and at worst, exploitative or even illegal. There’s nothing wrong with approaching an unpaid internship for a wealthy company with a degree of suspicion. If a company can afford to pay you but refuses to do so, they don’t deserve your time.

But what about a company that genuinely can’t afford to pay you? When it comes to accepting a summer internship, can a company’s business model and financial circumstances make a difference?

Should You Pursue a Summer Internship?

Yes, they can. Feel free to pursue an unpaid internship with a company if you support its larger mission, and it would have to divert funds away from that mission in order to compensate you. If you’re looking to build your event-planning experience, volunteering to organize fund drives and spaghetti dinners for the Red Cross can get you the experience you need without wasting your time, compromising your principles, or allowing yourself to be exploited.

If you’re into flowers and horticulture, go ahead and spend the summer working for free in your neighbor’s florist shop. If you’re considering a medical profession but would like to spend some time in a hospital environment before you decide, volunteer at a local clinic. When you come away from experiences like these, you’ll have a better understanding of the realities of your chosen career. And your hard work will have benefited an organization that genuinely needs your help and/or stands for something you believe in. Prestige or no prestige, an internship like this is worthwhile.

If you’ve weighed the pros and cons and have decided you’re willing to accept the alternate version—an unpaid summer with a brokerage, law firm, publishing house, or corporation—try to maintain control over your hours and days. Know exactly what you’d like to learn from the experience, and if you aren’t being exposed to your area of interest, be firm and walk away. Don’t be pushed into a corner organizing file drawers in the basement when you’d rather spend the day in the marketing department.

And if your goal is to impress future employers, remember: A summer spent immersed in a field you love, in firm control of your own destiny, suggests enterprise and selflessness. A summer spent in a miserable or demeaning position with an employer who refused to pay you suggests something else. Hiring managers can tell the difference.

For more guidance with the job search process, finding a quality internship, or keeping your career on track, contact a temporary staffing agency in CT at Merritt Staffing and arrange a consultation.

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