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Internship Diamonds Among the Rhinestones

If you are in life stage: Preparing for Take Off Posted August 21st, 2013
By Kathryn Sollmann

In a tough job market, it seems like too many job seekers don’t have the stamina to persevere. One man who counsels many unhappy job seekers told me recently that the “thing to do” for new college grads is to go back to school or get an unpaid internship.

To that I say, “Not so fast”. Without question there are certain professions that require grad school–and doctors or lawyers, for example, who face many years of additional schooling are wise to get moving quickly down that path. Some jobs require certain competencies—and if you don’t have them, it can also make sense to quickly complete a course.  But additional education before you can be relatively sure it will land you a job is just postponing the inevitable—the often frustrating, but necessary job search.   ID-100164034

The same is true of unpaid internships that can be an easier “out” when a job seeker can’t bear job search pain. I see many young people resigning themselves to an unpaid internship after a fairly short and fairly light job search—at a time when it can take senior executives six months or a year to land a new job.

So, you might be thinking, if it does take a long time to find a job today, why not get resume experience through an unpaid internship or volunteer position?

There’s no doubt that an internship or volunteer position can be a resume boost—but the key is to mine for diamonds among the rhinestones. Too often companies need extra hands—any extra hands—to make up for budget cuts and a subsequent hiring freeze. This turns into “free help” for random assignments—when most corporations and non-profits could probably afford even minor stipends or minimum wage. (I speak from experience: in the small companies with very limited resources I’ve managed no one was ever paid in experience rather than dollars.)

There’s a compelling Forbes article on the subject, “Leaning In—And Over—Unpaid Interns”, which is a hand slap to Sheryl Sandberg for advertising unpaid internships at her Lean In organization—and in the process limiting opportunities to the fortunate few who can work without pay.

My strong suggestion to anyone considering an unpaid internship for longer than a summer is to tread carefully. There’s no guarantee that the internship will lead to a job (at the sponsoring company or anywhere else), or that you will consistently be given work that truly develops your business skills.

Some internships and well-structured volunteer programs do, however, give you a leg up. In the sea of unpaid “rhinestone” internships or volunteer programs, I recently discovered one sparkling diamond. Save the Children, under the direction of Alternative Workforce Coordinator Elizabeth Harleman of Norwalk, CT, has created a stellar program for interns and volunteers.

Unlike the willy-nilly nature of the typical unpaid internship or volunteer opportunity, Elizabeth and her team has created a professional structure for each position. It begins with an actual project description from the manager, carefully outlining roles, responsibilities and opportunities.

On the volunteer side, people of all ages are asked to make a firm commitment of at least 14 hours a week. This adds to the professionalism of project work—making sure that volunteers are not flitting in and out as they wish, but instead digging in to ongoing meaty projects and becoming part of the organization’s staff meetings, learning & development programs and overall team.

On the intern side, students seeking a practical experience in a field of interest are recruited around the academic calendar year. The work is intended to be for the educational benefit of the intern, so mentorship, learning and development are key aspects of the program.

Part-time volunteers can spend a summer or longer on initiatives that specifically match their areas of interest and expertise. A retired advertising exec might work on a marketing brochure and recent grads can, in three-month cycles–try on various aspects of non-profit management they might later like to pursue.

Though a number of volunteers and interns are hired by Save the Children, there is no definite guarantee of long-term employment. Instead Elizabeth and her team make sure their alternative workforce is always getting full value from their experience.  New college grads find a launch pad for a variety of interesting careers, returning professional women regain confidence about their skills and get the current professional-level experience they need to find a paid job, and corporate professionals have the chance to test drive a non-profit career.

Elizabeth’s commendable program draws from her own experience as a longtime volunteer—and the desire she always had to make a real difference, be a valued project manager and advance a major initiative. Though she happily did her share of school fair and charity benefit volunteering, she graduated to major projects like chairman of interiors for the expansion of a local library.

Of course there are other structured internship programs that “pay” interns through course credit (for undergraduates) or offer solid experience and connections for recent grads. But I do believe the Save the Children approach is more the exception than the rule. If you are considering an unpaid opportunity yourself, or you’re advising a recent college grad, know that diamonds sparkle more than rhinestones along a serious career path. —KAS

Photo credit: Boykung/

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