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Monday, August 18, 2014

The Value of an Unpaid Internship

Over the years, I have worked with a number of interns who are meeting requirements of their degree by interning at Rogers HR Consulting.  Most of them have been undergrad students with barely any professional business experience.  Some have been returning vs. traditional students who have had a career and relevant business work experience, but those are rare.  Even more rare is my opportunity to work with grad students who are working on an MBA or a tailored Masters program with an emphasis in HR.  I prefer grad students only because they take less time to coach, teach, and manage which helps me focus on billable client hours.  Honestly, I spend hours of non-billable time with these students helping them hone their communications, time management, and business skills in addition to helping them learn a little about the world of HR, entrepreneurship, and small business management.  I work very hard at maintaining my patience and understanding as they often make mistakes (sometimes reflecting poorly on the company) and take a lot longer to do something than what you would expect from a paid employee.  All this is to be expected but what is often not expected from the applicant's are the reasons they are not paid and more importantly why that should not be the only aspect of the internship that is important to them.   Sure I would like to pay them if they actually brought in money to pay for themselves but honestly they cost me money by taking my time away from billable client hours. So what business person would say that is a good investment when the goal of an internship is for the student to learn and not for the business to benefit.  The following reflection from an actual intern briefly outlines just a few of the reasons paid internships are not the end-all be-all of business education. 

The Value of an Unpaid Internship

by Rogers HR Intern, Samantha Willits, Summer 2014

            The summer internship is a staple of the college experience and while the right placement offers experience, knowledge, and a potential job offer, is it worth the cost? Taking an unpaid internship meant not only giving up three months of my salary, but paying tuition for the opportunity. Yes, you read that right; I PAID to work. Now that the summer has reached an end, I ask, “Was it worth it? What did I learn?”

1.      Relevant Experience. In just three short months I issued invoices, managed a marketing project, worked on an Affirmative Action Plan, got involved with the TChat community, researched HR metrics and analytics for a training presentation, and volunteered for the 2014 ILSHRM conference. From my conversations with other professionals I’ve learned that in the field of HR, most companies will not hire you without at least 1 - 2 years minimum of relevant experience, no matter what your degree level is.

2.      Working from home is harder than it sounds. It takes a great deal of self-discipline to not be distracted by dishes and laundry and well-intentioned family members who think the phrase, “working from home” means they can call five times a day. Unlike grad school where mid-day naps and midnight paper sessions are acceptable, working from home still requires respecting the standard 9-5 day because the quality and timeliness of your work effects more than just yourself.

3.      Internships are uncomfortable. It takes the average employee three months to a year to experience a complete cycle of the position, learn job responsibilities, and become a fully functioning member of the team. A three month internship is barely enough time to get your sea legs. It is uncertain, uncomfortable, and full of mistakes. But if you can recognize this challenge from the beginning and find the humility and drive to invest your time and energy anyway, you will learn more than you ever thought possible and be less likely to make those mistakes in the future.

4.      Your relationship with your supervisor is your responsibility. Learning your supervisor’s expectations in three months is a challenge! He or she will not know which topics you have learned and which ones are brand new so it is your job to ask questions. Find out which tasks they consider priority, when you can take creative freedom, and when you must follow directions to a T. Ask about their expectations for communication: in-person or electronically? Daily or weekly? Do they want to approve every step of the project or wait until the end? Having these conversations at the beginning saves a great deal of frustration later on.

5.      Your grade is the least important part. Instead of worrying about your letter grade, learn your job responsibilities and your supervisor’s expectations. Show up early, dressed appropriately, mentally prepared, and enthusiastic. Read relevant material, ask questions, and submit all assignments on time. If you do these things, the grade will take care of itself.

6.      Take time to write weekly reflections. How does your internship relate to the rest of your degree? Your career? What are you doing well and what adjustments do you need to make to be more effective? Taking time to reflect will help you get the most out of your internship and become a better employee.
7.      Strive for excellence. Whether you are making coffee or writing the annual report, you should understand how your responsibilities contribute to the overall purpose of the organization and commit to doing your role with excellence and integrity.

8.      Take initiative. Even though you are the new wo(man) on the totem pole, look for opportunities to make connections, suggest new ideas, and take on new projects. Taking initiative shows that you are engaged beyond earning course credit. My decision to volunteer for the ILSHRM14 Conference was one of the best decisions I made! Not only did I get to learn about the field from the best thinkers and managers around, but I got to connect with over a hundred professionals I would have otherwise never met.

9.      Being professional is NOT synonymous with being boring. At the ILSHRM14 conference I was amazed at the number of authentic, passionate, and opinionated HR professionals I met with a killer fashion sense! Jennifer Mclure said it best in her keynote presentation: CEO’s will only give HR a seat at the table if you can make decisions, have an informed opinion, and are brave enough to share your expertise. Success goes to the professionals who have the courage to step out.

My decision to do an unpaid summer internship was invaluable. It bridged the gap between the theory I’ve learned and the practical knowledge needed in the field. It helped me connect with over a dozen HR professionals in my area and pushed me to get involved with the SHRM community. While internships are not the magic ingredient to finding a job after school, the knowledge, experience, and connections you gain will continue to build on one another and lead to more and more opportunities.
So what do you think? Are unpaid internships worth the investment?