Before We Begin a Witch Hunt…

Hello everyone! My apologies for a late blog: some ducks had to be put in a row for this one to be published. Now, on to defending internships…

In the past 4 months alone, there has been a deluge of news stories exemplifying bad internships. However, unpaid internships are not inherently evil. The circumstances and result of internships, on the other hand, could pass inspection as evil.

For those same 4 months, two days of every week have been booked for what is essentially an internship. It is not called that, but it functions the same way: I do work for a company and am not paid. This arrangement came about because I met with an experienced member of the marketing industry who invited me to learn more about said industry by doing volunteer work at the company where she works.

What Works

This internship works for a few reasons. It takes up only six hours every week, and I can work additional hours if I feel like it or need to so that work is completed. My direct supervisor is acting as a mentor: answering questions, inviting me to participate in tasks, allowing me to make my own mistakes, and providing honest feedback.

The most important part is how much control I had over the arrangement. I was asked to set my hourly commitment. I am expected to be honest if I think that I will be unable to complete a task.

Obviously those tasks benefit the company, but they are also relevant to my career goals. That is enhanced further by the aforementioned face-to-face feedback that flows both ways. The intentional results are refinement of my skills (helping me) that benefits the company (skilled workers are generally do better work) and refinement of current employees’ skills in the organization (see previous parentheses).

Examples of What Does Not Work

I am not stuck in an internship of 12-hour days doing phone surveys on the premise that is “relevant work” for a management position (don’t teach me about quality control charts or how to manage the differences between individual employees – why would I need those as a manager?). I am not bussing tables for free at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel in Vancouver (I am still reeling at the fact Fairmont is serious).

The Issues

Based on what I have read in the articles above and my own experience, it seems like there are two main problems that make unpaid internships unbearable for interns.

Over-Commitment

Human beings have fundamental needs. Eating, sleeping, drinking water, and having access to shelter and clothes are important for everyday life; so is having time to mentally unwind. No pay, no time to earn money on the side and limited leisure time because of a high number of working hours (and not listening to complaints) has unfortunate results.

Some will argue that the interns have made a choice to work the hours they do. That is true in some cases, and I am sure any intern takes their positions with faith that they will be treated well. Unrealistic time commitment expectations and no chance to have complaints heard does not constitute “well treatment”.

Actual Learning

Six 40-hour weeks performing phone surveys do not qualify as broadening a skill set. One week of phone surveys? That will teach someone a lot about the ground-level work and how to be patient in the face of anger and resentment, so it is not useless. However, an additional five weeks of phone surveys is like using a sledgehammer to drive home a finishing nail.

How about bussing tables at the Fairmont Vancouver for free? What can one learn from that internship? How to stack and carry more plates than looks reasonable and fake a smile.

The Bottom Line

Internships are not inherently evil. Everyone involved in an internship can benefit: interns gain skills, organizations gain trained employees and current employees (if they’re smart/willing to accept criticism) can refine their own skills. Keep internships alive, but make sure they deliver what is promised without pushing a human being past their bodily limits.

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