What Is Interning and Should I Do It?

You all know the stereotype – “Hey Johnny or Joe or whatever your name is, I need a coffee and donut, you remember what kind I like?”

The popular notion that internships chiefly consist of being an unappreciated gopher isn’t exactly wrong from the anecdotal experiences that myself and those around me have had. I held “student” positions at both my summer job, and when I was doing my student teaching. I believe these are fairly close to the “internship” model, and it’s true, I spent a ridiculous amount of time doing tedious tasks, and taking borderline verbal harassment from certain full-time employees. I have heard of people that loved their internship, and I have talked to many that thought that while the experience is ok, it almost financially crippled them. The bottom line for many students in today’s economy is that they need any edge they can in order to secure employment after graduation. For many, that edge becomes interning at a place of work that is connected to the career they want to pursue in some capacity.

For those who are lucky enough not to be familiar with interning, the basic idea is that someone (usually a young person looking for an entry-level position) will often take a short term position at a company somewhere that is low-paid (or no pay at all) in exchange for being “shown the ropes” as it were. Interns are often asked to “fill in the gaps” when it comes to helping with secretarial duties, or mundane tasks, as well as do pretty much whatever they are asked. The hope is that in addition to getting coffee and morning snacks, an intern will learn a lot about the business around them and gain a lot more than money from the ordeal in the form of valuable experience and connections. Sometimes this hope and/or ideal is realized, and many times it is not, but the practice of unpaid interning is growing across North America, for better or for worse.

Benefits

There a few very good reasons to put up with the low pay and bottom-of-the-totem-pole status that comes with interning. In my opinion the most valuable part of the experience is the network of connections within a local industry that you can build up. The more experience that myself and my semi-newly graduated friends get in the workforce the more we all agree that personal connections land WAY more jobs than shiny resumes do. Everyone is quick to push business cards into hands and try to boil network-building down to a science. I’m not so sure a 5 minute conversation and a quick handshake is the most effective. Interning allows someone to actually build meaningful work relationships, and show that they are competent and good to work with over an extended period of time. That sort of positive exposure is tough to come by any other way.

A couple other key benefits are the fact that many people often transition right from an internship to a job within the company or organization if they impress the right people, and on the flip side, you also find out if it is the right career for you. I know more than one person who has interned within their prospective career field during their first or second summer while in post-secondary and found out that they conclusively don’t want to do that job, or even be in that field at all. That is a pretty valuable insight when you consider how much school costs, and the eventual unenviable position of being locked into a job you sort of hate. If you do a good job during your internship, it just makes sense for the company to keep you on. You have already undergone your awkward training phase of finding out where everything is, learning the office-specific etiquettes, and getting familiar with everyone. I would encourage people to pitch themselves as being able to step right into a position and “hit the ground running.” This is valuable to a manager who is already stressed and is just looking to make their lives easier (plus it saves them the time and effort of looking through resumes and participating in interviews).

Drawbacks

Interning definitely has its share of detractors. A lot of “union-types” really hate the idea that companies can now get unpaid or minimum-wage earning young people who are extremely bright and motivated to do jobs that were reserved positions for relatively high-paying employees in the past. There is no question that after multiple years of post-secondary student loans, taking an internship can put a heavy financial strain on many individuals. In a perfect world, I think every industry would use a model such as the one that has been developed in the trades. A Co-op-esque sort of program with a gradual release in responsibility and accreditation is probably the smartest style of post-secondary training that I have come across. There is no doubt that most interns will learn a ton of stuff in the workforce that they would have never learned in the classroom, but obviously it would be nice if they didn’t have to live on the street and eat ramen noodles while they were going through the process!

What was your experience with interning? Did you get something valuable out of it, or were you merely a lowly-paid peon that did the bidding of people who were counting down the days until retirement?

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I had a fantastic internship experience. But I started with a salary in the mid-40s, at a job with interesting and challenging work (and lots of organizational space to contribute new ideas). As for internships in general, I think they can be extremely valuable, but there’s only one criteria: it must be paid. Anything else, if you’re contributing anything, is first-off illegal. I must admit I take a bit of an issue with the statement “a lot of ‘union-types’ really hate the idea that companies can now get unpaid [workers]”. So besides the fact that it’s UNPAID WORK which is… Read more »

I work in purchasing. The internship wasn’t my only opportunity and it offered 0 benefits — but it was reasonably paid for a 22 year old as you note, and in precisely the field I wanted. Gaining intimate knowledge of an organization from the inside is a huge advantage (especially when there’s a large set of rules and regs) — this completely justifies working hard for *lower* pay. It allowed me to win a better non-internship contract, then a similar permanent position (Dental plan!), and then a more senior role at age 24– at which point I was beyond grateful… Read more »

I think the internship experience is highly dependent on field. In high paying technical fields, internships generally pay well and are interesting. In over-staffed fields like marketing or teaching, chances are it will suck.

At least in the states, there are so many college students who have no work experience whatsoever. An internship can provide a reach advantage.

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