Internships: Career Advancement or Exploitation?

I never understood why internships don’t pay or pay too little. Until I was an intern and later had my own intern(s) to mentor that I realized why this is the case.

The fact is, when you are a fresh graduate entering the work place, you have little to no exposure that is practical to the field or business you desire to enter into. Being allowed into these work and business environments, partaking in their practical daily operations is part of your education.

The business or company and the intern make a deal: We (the business or company) take you (the intern) on for free or little pay to cover only your transport to work, for example. In exchange, we expose you to our currency, which is, an opportunity to most effectively practice the theory you learned and our (the company’s) hard earned collection of tricks of the trade.

What you learn theoretically is practiced and assimilated with knowledge that could only come from first-hand experience. This is valuable currency to allow an intern to have access to and be exposed to the inner workings thereof.

In fact, not being paid or being paid little is paying for this access, experience and practical exposure. It is a continuity of your curriculum and education that you pay for, by taking little to no pay. It is worth investing into it as an addition to your education, so that by the time you get out you already have anything between 3 to 12 months of work experience as part of your CV.

I know that in reality, it is common that by the time you have that qualification in your hand, most graduates are pressured by their parents to immediately get a paying job. Which overlooks the fact that, this new graduate is qualified but has no experience.

Part of the anticipation therefore for the parent or care-taker paying for the schooling of a student should be at least a year of financially supporting a graduate as if they were still a full time student, while they attend an internship.

Navigating Internships – How many? How long?
The key, however, is not to make a career of internships. So try not to do more than one internship in any given field that you are trying to enter. However, be aware that, every new avenue or field you try to explore and enter into might have to begin with an internship that does not pay or pays just to cover you getting to work.

The best option, where possible, is to get an internship in your home town so that you can cut down on living expenses by living at home.  This way it is not so costly to intern for, at most, a year.

However, if you are not able to get an internship in the town or city you are from, then try to find and negotiate a minimum wage paying internship. You can supplement this wage through the financial support of your parents. Ideally, in this case, it should not last more than 6 months because if you are not from that city where the internship is offered, it means all your expenses are higher.

“It is a continuity of your curriculum that you pay for, by taking little or no salary.”

A little paying internship should not span more than a year. In this way, even though you may need additional financial support, at least you will be able to contribute with your stipend to lighten the load and it is a clearly defined period of time.

Let me be clear, anything more than a year of internship is exploitation. This is the kind of internship you should never consider taking no matter how desperately few available internship opportunities there are.  This will wear you out and catapult you into an underpaying internship career and this is not the outcome you should be going for.

What to set up during an internship
Before you get into an internship, ascertain whether your internship is going to be followed with an entry level position.

“The best option, where possible, is to get an internship in your home town so that you can cut down on living expenses.”

If this is not the case, then while in the midst of your tenure as an intern, it is important to readily identify which companies or businesses you want to work for and begin to approach them about entry level jobs to follow your internship.

Be proactive, bold and tenacious.

Set up meetings with potential future companies and businesses where you clearly sell your current internship position as preparation for the job position you desire in their company or business. Also, begin negotiating for them to create space for you or keep you in mind.

Parents and Internships
Parents play an important role in transitioning a new graduate to employment. In other words, it’s not over after graduation day.

Circumstances differ today, parents should not rush or pressure freshly graduated children into jobs.

The truth is, it is an exception for a graduate to get  the perfect full paying job fresh out of tertiary.

If your child was not taking internships during their study breaks, then they have no experience for the work place. The chances are they will have to go through some kind of internship or in-service that pays them little or nothing.

Anticipate this added cost of their transition from new graduate to full time self-sufficient worker by being willing to financially partially or completely support them during this time. It is part of their journey to getting that coveted full-time paying job and career lauded with full benefits.

Who benefits? Employer, Interns or both?
Internships are not only for your potential future employer’s benefit, but also benefit you as a fresh graduate.

PR Company, MIR,  Co-owner, Babongile Dlamini, says, “Internships are a safe way to enter the job market because employers expect to guide you into the role they may need you to play as a full-time employee.”

They provide graduates with insight into the work place and the work discipline. They build confidence in the graduate as they get used to the demands of the work place which are much more disciplined compared to student life, for example.

However, employers also benefit, as your presence in the role you play brings dynamic insights that are fresh and current to the times in an otherwise out-of-date work environment. Young graduates brings new ideas, viewpoints and renewed liveliness into work places.

As a new graduate, you certainly have much to offer, so have patience as you earn your stripes.

Gone are the days of the myth of internships as a luxury afforded only by graduates of comfortable, well-off or wealthy parents. Every graduate who does not get immediate employment straight out of university (or other higher education entities) would do well to serve as an intern in the meantime (12 month maximum).

This allows young graduates to distinguish themselves early in their careers in order to reach for the stars when they finally get to their dream jobs. §

By Nobuntu Mqulwana