about this column.
May 11, 2001
© 2001, Douglas E. Welch
When you are first getting started on your high-tech career you are often looking for any way to break in. For some people this might include an internship with a company where you are interested in working full-time. In many cases, though, internships are unpaid. While it is possible to gain a great deal of professional knowledge in an internship, the lack of pay, and sometimes the lack of training varies widely from company to company.
My opinion about internships is that there should be some form of pay whenever you have someone doing productive work for your company. This need not be a full paycheck or even regular payments. I think that even a small stipend or honorarium would meet my criteria for a good internship. This has several benefits.
Some payment shows, in the most basic of terms, that there is a value to the work the intern is providing. This has great physiological benefit to the intern. It also shows that a company is serious about the internship.
Todd Brizendine, Web Producer with San Diego Media, seems to feel the same way, "My opinion is that if someone is doing something that is of value to your business, then they should be compensated."
The basic facts of survival can also enter into the equation. If an intern needs to hold a full-time job elsewhere or skimp on the basic necessities, they will focus less on the work they are doing for you.
"Interns are usually students, money matters; in fact, money directly translates to how well you eat," says Catherine Mills, an intern at the San Diego Super Computer Center. "I am an intern. I have been interning for 3 years now and would never consider taking an unpaid internship. In fact, as I searched for an internship I didn't see one that was unpaid."
Of course, the most important "pay" of any internship is how much you can learn. You need to get as much knowledge as possible so that you can prove your worth to the interning company or to allow you to look elsewhere for the next job up the career ladder.
When you are looking at internships you need to be very specific about what information you will be learning, who will be managing you and how much time you will spend doing more than just the "grunt work" of the department. Granted, grunt work is usually what interns are hired to do but there are two sides to every internship. If an intern is not learning anything, especially if they are not getting any pay, grunt work is a serious disservice to the intern.
Joe Crawford, a web developer and designer for AVENCOM, puts it this way, "[in] an internship there is responsibility on *both* sides of the equation. If an internship lasts forever, that's wrong. If an internship is just grunt work, that's wrong. If an intern is a de facto employee, that's wrong."
Carefully inspect any internship for which you are applying. This is the only way to avoid being caught in an internship that seems like it will never end.
"Few busy people in business hire unpaid interns out of their kind-hearted desire to help young people gain experience... it is the prospect of having a few extra gophers around free of charge to do dirty work that is the motivator," says Brizendine. "If an employer is going to take the time to train people, then they are doing it so that their business will benefit from it."
It is a sad truth that some companies see interns only as a never-ending supply of cheap labor to be used and sent away. In some cases, interns end up doing work that should be done by paid employees. As with anything, there are people and companies who only seek to take advantage of those around them.
"An intern should not be treated as slave labor. It is indeed "bad practice" to do so. It's evil and unethical, in fact," says Crawford.
"I have known many people on the hiring side who would rather use interns than paid help. That's bad practice," says Kelly Abbott, Digital Media Director for The McQuertergroup. "They usually make people do grunt labor and offer little in the way of inside knowledge. However good intern relationships are like an apprenticeship. You do work for free, some of it grunt work, and in turn you get access to some great tools, knowledge, experience and boost your own portfolio."
Great professional experience can be gained from internships, both paid and unpaid, but there must be a clear understanding about the responsibilities of all the parties involved. I think every intern should receive some sort of payment, no matter how small, but the bulk of your payment is sure to come in the skills and knowledge you gain.
Many thanks to my fellow members of the WebSanDiego mailing list, <http://www.websandiego.org/> for taking the time to contribute to this article.
about this column.
Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant
in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career issues with
other readers by joining the Career Opportunities Discussion on
Douglas' web page at: http://www.welchwrite.com/dewelch/ce/
He can reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org