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The Predator – Watch out for Exploitative Internships

Posted by Carolyn Thompson on Jun 21, 2012 in Career Path, Lessons Learned

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For those who are still in college or just now graduating, the saying, “It’s a jungle out there,” is truer now more than ever. One of the many options that students or recent graduates flock to in lieu of full- or even part-time employment is the unpaid internship. Don’t get me wrong—internships, especially in certain hard-to-break-into industries like journalism, are often the only way to get your foot in the door. But in hard economic times, it’s not uncommon for companies and businesses to offer internships that are either exploitative, technically illegal, or some combination of both. Here’s what you should watch out for to avoid becoming the prey of shady internship programs:

1.      Ask former interns about their experiences; don’t join an internship program blind.

Thanks to the Internet, there’s plenty of information out there about both good and bad internships. Sometimes a simple Google search will suffice. You can also look into websites that rank and review internships, like Vault.com. Whatever you do, try to get in personal touch with a former intern—either through email, on the phone, or in-person—so that you understand from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, what the internship is really like.

2.      You should not be asked to do the same work in amount and kind as a full-time worker.

What makes an internship illegal is getting paid nothing to conduct “essential work.” Essential work is basically a full set of tasks that a full-time employee who gets paid does on a daily basis. Internships are essentially a networking opportunity combined with a few diverse tasks to give you a better idea of what the company or organization does as a whole. If you’re being asked to do essential work, then you’re working for a company that’s breaking the law. For more information about the legality of unpaid internships, check out this article.

3.      Always first seek out paid internships. They do exist.

Of course, the vast majority of internships are unpaid. But you’d be surprised by how many internships are out there that do pay, even if it’s not very much. Paid internships tend to be more serious in the nature of the work you’ll be doing, and they’re more affordable.

4.      There are definite alternatives to unpaid internships. You just have to know where to look.

Although many of my friends and relatives have had internships, and I’ve counseled younger people who’ve participated in good internships, I’ve never done unpaid work in my life beyond extracurricular volunteer work. When I graduated from college and couldn’t find work, I instead took on freelance projects as a writer and consultant. These (paid) projects can be just as rewarding as internships. You’ll establish connections that can lead to full-time work, you’ll learn the basics of various industries, and you’ll be getting paid to boot. So while internships can be wonderful experiences, you don’t absolutely need them to get your foot in the door.

In virtually every industry, there are predators out there. Don’t be their victim. Do your research and choose internships wisely. Good luck!

This guest post was contributed by Barbara Jolie. Barbara is a full time freelance writer and blogger in the Houston area. She enjoys writing about education and the advantages of online classes for all students. If you have any questions email Barbara at barbara.jolie876 @gmail.com.

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