Unpaid Internship: Unfair, Sometimes Illegal, and Not Going Away Anytime Soon

Unpaid internships are a great way to get ahead as well as exploitative and unfair. So... are they good or bad?

Internships have a lot going for them—they're great experience, there's crucial early-career networking and, in a worst-case scenario, they can help you figure out if you've made a poor choice of career.

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Hey, Interns: Take Back Your Summers and Dump Your Internship

Go out into the world and have an awesome, honest-to-goodness, old school summer.

In our weekly Hustlin' series, we go beyond the pitying articles about recession-era youth and illuminate ways our generation is coping. The last few years may have been a rude awakening, but we're surviving. Here's how.

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Companies Value Internships—So Why Don't They Hire Interns?

There's a fundamental disconnect between internship theory and practice.

As recently as the 1980s, internships were uncommon and certainly not required for entry-level jobs. Nowadays, they represent a rite of passage for three-quarters of the 10 million students enrolled in America’s four-year colleges and universities. And according to a recent study by Millennial Branding, Inc., the lion's share of employers expect students to have internships on their résumés; 91 percent of the 225 employers surveyed think students should have between one and two internships before they graduate.

Yet the study found that half of those employers haven't hired any interns in the past six months, revealing a fundamental disconnect between internship theory and practice. A couple decades ago, interns may have expected to at least get hired by the same company for whom they gave up their summers. But today, some companies apparently only want interns in the abstract.

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Why We Should Make It Easier for High School Grads to Take a "Gap Year"

When students take a year off before college to gain real-world experience, everyone wins.

Should more American students take a year off between high school and college to gain real-world experience, tangible skills, and some maturity? That's the thinking behind "gap years," a purposefully planned year of volunteer work and internships. Although they're growing in popularity in the States, they're still not as common here as they are in some other parts of the developed world. But after 12 years of studying, maybe encouraging graduates to take a year off and apply that book learning isn't a bad idea.

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With employers scaling back hiring due to the tight economy, getting the real-world work experience summer internships provide is more crucial than ever. Think it’s too late for you to land a great opportunity for this summer? Rachel Garson, assistant director of internships from Northwestern University’s Career Services, says no way.
Garson supports a wide range of students from all academic disciplines, and whether they start their internship hunt in January or June, she guides them through the process. Here are her top tips to help you bring your A-game to your summer internship search.
1. Focus. Garson says this is the step most students dislike, but figuring out your career interests should be your first move. Talk to people doing jobs that interest you. Ask them what their jobs are really like—and don’t just contact them using e-mail or Facebook. "Students rely on email and online resources, and while those are helpful, old-school sounding face-to-face interactions really help you identify whether a particular career is a good fit for you," says Garson. Skip this step, and you might end up with an internship miserably mismatched with your values, skills and interests.
2. Scour that rolodex. Activate your networks and use multiple search strategies. That’s what your competition is up to. "They’re using online resources, they’re using their networks and they’re speaking with employers and working towards creating opportunities," says Garson. Don’t be shy about cold calling a company to ask about internships. Convince them you’d be an addition to their team.
3. Think smaller. Too often students think great internships are only with the big industry names. Garson says students can have an equally positive experience at a smaller, niche employer. Smaller businesses may also have spots available later in the Spring. Most larger companies have already hired their interns for the year simply because students target them first.
4. Do your homework. Thoroughly research any organization you're interviewing with so that you know how to market your skills effectively. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking, "It’s just an internship." Never take it for granted that an employer will bring you on board if you know nothing about them.
5. Work during business hours. Too often, Garson says, students search for an internship on a student schedule instead of on an employer schedule. "Instead of building their search into every day, they make a block of time late at night. No employer is reading e-mails you send out at midnight," she says.
6. Pinch pennies. If you’re offered an unpaid internship and it really aligns with your long-term career goals, Garson recommends that you go for it. But don’t starve. "Negotiate your hours so that you’re more flexible and can work something out, possibly even getting a second job that pays." Check with your university to see if they offer support for unpaid summer internships. Garson says Northwestern offers a Summer Internship Grant, for instance.
Above all, Garson says to remember that landing an internship’s a competitive, time consuming process: "But, thousands of students do it every year. You just need to be proactive and engage in the process."
Photo (cc) by Flickr user Thewmatt\n

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