May 1, 2012
Internships: gateways to career success
Internships. For many of us, this word conjures up a classic episode from "Seinfeld" where Kramer, a character who needs no introduction, has the brilliant idea of hiring an intern from NYU to fetch his laundry, do his chores and basically act as his personal servant. And after a series of typically bizarre plot twists, this poor intern ultimately gets framed for a crime that Kramer, Jerry and the gang commit -- and is sent away to prison.
Thankfully, most internships don't end up this way. In fact, for many of us, they serve as an invaluable, much-needed gateway between college studies and the job marketplace. They provide the chance for professionals who are just starting out to acquire some real-world experience in exchange for, in most cases, the willingness to do some work for free.
Of course, this kind of arrangement can easily be exploited. In an economy like the one we've been experiencing these last few years, employers can be tempted to use internships to get as much additional work done as possible without adding to their payroll. As a result, many observers have pointed out that quite a few of the employers who offer internships end up -- either deliberately or inadvertently -- violating one or more of the six federal requirements for unpaid internships that have been established by the U.S. Department of Labor.
You'll find these six rules explained here on a DOL Fact Sheet. In brief, they are:
1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
Again, the conventional wisdom is that many internship arrangements today come awfully close to crossing some of these lines. I've personally heard about a number of internships, in fact, that flirt dangerously close to some of these boundaries, especially the fourth item. So if you're an employer thinking about creating a new internship opportunity, make sure to study these rules carefully.
Despite a few bad apples, though, internships continue to serve as a vital lifeline for helping individuals gain the experience needed to advance their careers and transition into full-time paid assignments. They provide inexperienced workers with an "apprenticeship" opportunity to help them develop the specialized skills, talents and qualifications needed to compete for work in an increasingly specialized and finicky labor market.
Want to learn more about internships? There's lots of good material out there on the web about the subject, if you sleuth around. For example, Software Advice's HR blogger Jennifer King interviewed two experts, including the founder of Intern Match, on the nature and benefits of internships today. You can watch the video interview, called "What Does a Successful Internship Look Like?" here.
Additionally, if you're seeking an internship in the Puget Sound area, you might want to make contact with Daniel Hallak of Next Step Career Consulting. Daniel is a local career coach who publishes a free monthly bulletin featuring dozens of internship and entry-level opportunities in the Greater Seattle area. You'll find Daniel's site here, and if you scroll down to the bottom right of the main page, you'll see a subscription link for his internship bulletin along with archives of all his past issues.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
Paul Anderson helps professionals in transition find their desired employment.
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