Last week CBC news published an article on unpaid internships in Canada, reporting on the growing number of professionals in companies and organizations working for free.
This dilemma was made notorious when the Vancouver Fairmont Waterfront Hotel published an ad seeking a busboy intern. The ad, in part, read: "As a Busperson, you will take pride in the integral role you play in supporting your Food and Beverage Colleagues and "setting the stage" for a truly memorable meal."
As a server working part-time in a restaurant, I rely on the men and women who help clear tables, transport dirty dishes, and run endless plates of food. They don't make nearly as much money as a server, but the incentive is there: if they work hard enough and prove themselves as a busperson, they will be promoted to serving. In the meantime, they are paid for the hard work they do. I for one, can't imagine doing that kind of work for free.
It seems what used to be considered entry level work, with the opportunity to move up the corporate ladder, is now being advertised as unpaid internships, cloaked under the guise of valuable experience. Despite trending stories of the horrors of unpaid internships, the facts remain the same. Jobs are limited, and experience is necessary for graduates who want to fill the shoes of those who came before them.
As I hear more and more of my friends talk about the pros and cons of unpaid internships, I can't help but wonder how the experience itself affects their emotional way of being. Setting aside for a moment the work load, which, in and of itself can be hard to handle, the actual prospect of working for free, with no guarantee of employment or even valuable experiences, is hard to digest. In thinking about this, I thought I'd give my own two cents about how to stay grounded when transitioning into an unpaid internship.
Transitioning into unpaid internships.
The transition to becoming an unpaid intern isn’t easy. There is little to no income, there is no certainty of a job, there is sometimes no set deadline for starting and ending, and there may be limited feedback and recognition by coworkers and supervisors. In dealing with these changes, interns can feel overwhelmed, anxious, frustrated, underappreciated, depressed, confused...the list goes on. On the flip side, graduates who intern may feel they are serving a purpose by developing themselves professionally and making network contacts, putting their skills and knowledge to use in a workplace setting, and learning about the good, bad, and ugly of the industry they are breaking into.
How to deal?
One of the real concerns about interning that is less pronounced by media is how interns are dealing with the transition process. Most often, the story goes something like this: a top undergraduate student who also completed a master’s degree at a prestigious university in a well respected program finds that she is only getting interviews for unpaid internships in her field. When hired on, she becomes the coffee runner for office employees, or is given menial administrative duties to fill her day. She decides to leave and continue to look for work, only to receive interviews for similar positions to the one she just left.
Talk about a lot of changes going on: Graduating university, applying for jobs, not getting interviews, applying for internships, accepting an unpaid position, quitting that position, applying for jobs...as the cycle continues, so does the transition process, the psychological adjustment to all of these changes day in and day out. It can be exhausting, and it wears us down. So, how do we deal?
Don’t let an internship be your only focus.
Trust me, I get that internships aren’t easy. Long hours go into completing projects and assignments and the workday may not end at 5pm. Especially if an intern is looking to make a name for herself, the more hours put in, the better. However, the internship shouldn't be the only focus. We are dynamic beings with varied interests and abilities. Although we may choose to put most hours of our day into an internship, it has to be balanced with other activities, hobbies, and projects that we find interesting, and more importantly, that we feel excited and confident about. Remember that old saying "don't put all your eggs in one basket?" It definitely applies here. When we think about the number of internships that fall flat in offering full or even part-time employment, it's only necessary that we protect ourselves by also investigating other avenues for career development. No experience is wasted, but if we can find ways to apply the experience we are getting in an unpaid internship into other kinds of professional development, we may find more doors open once the internship is over.
Leverage your internship experience: create a learning contract.
When I was completing my diploma in career counselling, I was required to do two work placements. This was my first experience doing an unpaid internship, and I was weary about working for free for a total of 18 weeks. When I reflect back on my internships, I realize the major catalyst in shaping my positive experience was the learning contract me and my temporary employers agreed to. This contract was a requirement of the college, as I was to gain specific learning experiences that complemented the theoretical knowledge I received in the classroom.
Learning contracts are great for two reasons. In drafting a contract you take time to brainstorm and write down your learning expectations for the unpaid internship. If you don't know what you expect to learn, you have to find out. This means doing some research on the company or organization you want to intern for. Find out what kind of learning can be achieved, and think carefully about whether this is the kind of learning you are looking for. Secondly, you have a document to present to your future employer or supervisor outlining your expectations. It not only opens up grounds for discussion about the value of your time at a company or organization, it also demonstrates that you mean business. It may be the deciding factor, for the employer, in whether you are expected to make coffee runs all day. If it's not in an agreed upon learning contract, it shouldn't be a major part of the learning experience. Both you and an employer are accountable to this contract, and the contract may be your best resource if you are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or unhappy with the work you are being assigned.
Share your experience with others.
As an unpaid intern, your experiences are valuable to others who may be considering the same route to finding fruitful employment and professional development. Your experiences are also valuable because they are your own. Sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly about being an unpaid intern is an opportunity for you to express how you are feeling, how the process is affecting you, and how you are finding ways to deal with the stress and uncertainty. A support network of others facing the same challenges can be a resource to you, especially if you feel uncertain of your decision to complete one. Of course, it's not always negative. Often, internships provide positive experiences and those must be shared too. Feeling a sense of accomplishment for what you are doing, whether or not it's paid work, is fantastic. Sharing your successes and challenges may take shape in a weekly get-together with other interns. It may be a phone call to your mom, dad, or best friend. It may be journalling at night. No matter how you express what you are feeling, it is important to have an outlet to do so during this process.
In navigating your career development, an unpaid internship may be a great opportunity to get involved in the industry you foresee yourself working in. Be mindful of how the transition into unpaid work is affecting you, and shape your experience so that it is most worthwhile to you.