Internships: Experience or Exploitation?

A great way to immerse yourself in the culture and workflow of a company is to land an internship. Internships originated from the Medieval guild system, wherein apprentices were taken in by master craftsmen and given the opportunity to work from the ground up in their trade of choice.

There are two kinds of internship programs, both closely monitored by different labour departments of governments around the world. The first is the paid internship, wherein students are compensated for the work they do for the company as it affects the bottom-line of the company. Generally, paid internships are more sought after and very competitive, as the overall view towards those who get paid internships is that they are more serious about their careers and that they undergo a richer experience while working for the company.

More often than not, paid interns are the ones who are offered jobs at the companies they worked for, due to their marked contributions to the bottom line.

Inherently, or rather in principle, all internship programs, whether paid or unpaid, have valuable benefits that you as the student intern can grow from, like:

New Experience

An internship gives you the opportunity to see firsthand what the working conditions in the real world are like. Even though you are isolated from the workforce and have your own curriculum to follow while on-site, you will be able to see how to conduct yourself in meetings, what to wear to work, how to write a company email, and so on.

Career Prospects

Perhaps the best thing about internships is that they open up a world of career prospects to the student who undertakes the program. Finally, your CV will have something akin to experience in a real-world setting, and maybe even be a pipeline into the company you intern at. Furthermore, having the experience by interning at one company may lend you more consideration for a job at their competitor when you start looking for jobs after graduation.

Creating a Professional Network

Internship programs give you the opportunity to engage with people who are experts in their field. Landing an internship at a good company may look great on your CV, and the skills you acquired while there will surely help you on your way, but at the end of it all, it is the relationships we cultivate that matter the most in the workplace.

Pitting Theory against Practice

Remember those times you thought to yourself, “It’s not like I really need to know this, it’s such a drag to have to be tested on it.”? Well, you may have been right. Like it or not, there is dissonance between the things that are taught in a university, and the knowledge that is really being put to use. There can be gaps in skill training or overcompensating assumptions that are easily and matter-of-factly set right with a little dose of reality.

Identifying Strengths and Weaknesses

By the time we’re old enough for an internship, we should be familiar with our strengths and weaknesses, right? Well, sometimes we can surprise ourselves. If you’re terrible at your math classes but find you’re kind of a good bookkeeper because of your internship, or you think you’re good at public speaking, but your internship at a law firm proves just how much more you need to learn about it – then good for you. But this sort of clarity isn’t only limited to an internal reflection – internships expose the strengths and weaknesses of the companies and industries we choose to work in as well. Like you may love your motion capture work, but by interning at an animation company, you realise you only really enjoy one part of the whole process – and that’s just not enough to make you dedicate your entire career to doing.

The second type of internship is an unpaid internship, and while there are many benefits you can cull from such programs, there is also a considerable risk of being exploited due to the extra-legality of many such internship programs.

In actuality, internship programs are very often abused or neglected for the company’s bottom line. As they are protected by Labour Laws, internships are supposed to have the well-being and the development of the student first in mind -- but it has become very common to interpret “well-being and development” as “This is real life screwing you over, get used to it”.

According to Investopedia, the general opinion is that despite the existing labour laws in the US, some employers do exploit interns independent of academic level. They can be abused as free labour, where employers cycle through interns without any intent to hire any of them on a full-time basis. This displaces existing full-time workers and increases unemployment. Internships contribute to recessions and weakened economies. Tough market conditions, in an economy experiencing ups and downs more extreme than usual, make companies more desensitized to the idea of “intern exploitation” versus their dwindling bottom line. Furthermore, under federal law, every employee in America is entitled to a minimum wage, additional compensation for overtime, and certain other benefits. An employment relationship will also have consequences for the employer relating tow compensation, discrimination laws, employee benefits, state labour laws, and unemployment insurance coverage. For these requirements not to apply, the employment relationship must fall under applicable legal exemptions.

One such exemption, according to the US Supreme Court, exists for people who work to their personal advantage rather than that of the employer. Such a person may be considered a trainee instead of an employee for purposes of the federal law. There are six factors that determine whether a work program was for the intern’s educational benefit, or for the advantage of the employer. Familiarize yourself with them so that you can protect yourself against potential exploitation.

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.

Meaning, if you’re a political science student and you intern at a crisis management firm, you’ll be doing stuff that is similar to what you’ve been studying – like doing background research for a client who needs the firm to settle a labour dispute in a foreign country. Being limited to making coffee or being forced to sweep up the office and tidy the desks after work doesn’t count.

The intern experience is for the benefit of the intern!

Again, if you learn something, even if it’s as simple as how to address emails or what newspapers to monitor for pertinent and thorough information, then you’re in a good position. If you gain nothing from the experience, and actually resent that you’re being made to make coffee for the regular employees or what-have-you, then you have legal grounds to sue the company where you interned (should it ever come to that).

The intern does not displace regular employees but works under close supervision of existing staff.

You’re not there to be a free worker, and this has to be made absolutely clear from the get-go. If you find out that you’ll be doing the same work as someone who was let go a few days ago, and that your supervisor is so inaccessible, then alert someone in your school or tell the company you cannot continue to work there unpaid.

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.

If you’ve seen any of the Despicable Me movies, then you’ll know that the Minions aren’t exactly an immediate advantage to whichever villain they work for. Think of yourself as a Minion, in the figurative sense – even if you fail at your assigned tasks, the good of the company will not suffer. On top of doing their jobs and pulling the slack, the actual employees will take the time out to instruct you on where you went wrong and what was needed from you.

The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.This is a very tricky point; because you are not necessarily entitled to a job at the end of your internship, then many companies feel empowered to make you work for free (or for their benefit) and not feel compelled to offer you a job or to compensate you for the work done during your work program. However, if you are somehow led to believe that if you work for free, then you will receive a job offer at the end of the program, then you can tell right away you’re being led on. Get the promise of an offer in writing so if push comes to shove, you can make the company accountable for what they tell you.

The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

Again, another tricky point; because you are not entitled to wages, then companies can feel empowered to make you work primarily for their benefit and not pay you for it. But if you’re smart about it, you’ll be able to communicate to them that if they’re not going to follow labour laws, then they can find themselves another unpaid intern – and report them to your school while you’re at it.

Where do you stand on internships, and how they affect students and companies? Let us know!

Get a free resume review
  • 7 seconds: this is how long your resume has either to impress or be ignored by the recruiter 
  • 300+: average number of applications one corporate job opening posted online receives 
  • 3%: number of sent resumes that result in interviews 

Transform your career
and beat the odds!

View Packages