Internships: the good, bad and ugly

Are unpaid internships worth it?

Bad things that happened upon returning to work in the new year: everything tech-related that could go wrong went wrong. BUT OF COURSE. It’s only a matter of time before my computer refuses to turn on at all – my laptop is on its last legs.  The fact that this is the third time I’ve started writing this post, and am crossing my fingers that it doesn’t get eaten.

Good things that happened upon returning to work in the new year: Overall, it was pretty darn painless and practically pleasant. Love my coworkers, love the work.

Neutral things that happened upon returning to work in the new year: Having an intern on the first day back.

Yup, it’s time for a post about internships.

My thoughts on internships from the student side

I can’t speak to internships in other industries – the 400 hours of work experience engineering students do, the formal graduate internship schemes accounting/banking/consulting firms do, or the crazy American style of unpaid internships that last for months. I can only speak for the more casual 1-2 week (usually unpaid) internship that’s basically a prerequisite to getting anywhere in the creative industries, New Zealand style, and why it’s invaluable.

Practical experience. Look, the catch 22 for those trying to enter the workforce is the need for experience. Nobody wants to take a gamble on a newbie. The best way is to get real world experience under your belt before you graduate, through volunteering, internships, or any other way you can get it. My university was big on work experience and we did two industry placements in my final year. Those gave us good clips for our portfolio. Getting published makes you that much more legit in others’ eyes, and in today’s age, when the barriers to creative industries are basically non-existent, quality work will help you stand out.

Cold, harsh reality. Internships give you a taste for what you can really expect – and you might not like it. One of ours didn’t come back after the first day. Doesn’t say much for their commitment … but if you’re going to hate the reality of an industry, it’s better to find out now than later. TV or radio seem glamorous? Wake up to the crazy hours you’ll have to work in order to prove yourself and you’ll soon change your mind.

Making contacts. Who you know matters as much as what you know. Getting inside a workplace enables you to make contacts there that you’d never otherwise have such close access to. Make the most of it (I wish I’d done this myself), swallow those nerves and approach people.

My thoughts on internships from the supervising side

We’re all busy. That means a good intern is a godsend. A bad intern? A bad intern is very bad news.

Help us help you. We will happily answer questions, welcome ideas and suggestions, and your thoughts on the kinds of things you’d like to work on and what you’d like to learn more of. We in the creative fields are always short-staffed, so in my experience, interns generally have the opportunity get to take on as much as they’re capable of.

Help yourself. Internships should be win-win: learning and experience in exchange for some free labour. But you need to help yourself. It’s 2012; you can’t be afraid of technology. Even in a more traditional discipline, you’re going to need to use various software tools to get the job done. There’s no excuse for technological illiteracy. I don’t want to hear “I hate technology” from you. I definitely don’t want to have to explain how Dropbox works or help you figure out why the text on your browser has zoomed way out. This is the workplace, not daycare, and there’s not a lot of time for hand-holding.

There better be an ROI. Nobody wants an intern who’s going to be more trouble than they’re worth. Particularly when an intern is only around for a very short time, it’s not worth investing effort into extensive training on certain proprietary things. Ironically, sometimes I end up giving interns the plum tasks and do the grunt admin stuff myself for this reason. Basically, if having an intern around is going to hurt my productivity, then we have a problem. I don’t expect that having an intern around will basically double what I can achieve overall at work, but let’s try for an output of, say, 1.5 of me. Fair enough?

 What have your experiences of internships been?

9 thoughts on “Internships: the good, bad and ugly

  • Reply Manda January 17, 2013 at 14:34

    “crazy American style of unpaid internships that last for months”

    I had three unpaid internships in college (each lasting a semester). I didn’t land my first paid one till the summer after I graduated, which luckily turned into a job offer at the end of the summer. And of course, I couldn’t have landed my paid gig without the experience I got with my unpaid ones!

    I don’t understand why people choose not to intern in college – at least in the States as I’m not sure how it works elsewhere. Yeah it might be unpaid (I’m of the view that if a company cannot do its day to day operations without an intern, the intern should be paid, but that’s another story) but work experience is an absolute necessity to landing your first job! Unless you (or your parents) are super well-connected, I guess.

  • Reply Holly@Clubthrifty January 17, 2013 at 14:40

    We have interns at my work sometimes and some of them are a giant pain in the ass. We have had interns who just stand around and talk and distract everyone. We have had interns that act weird around our customers. We have had interns that create dramatic situations for fun. I wish we didn’t have interns =/

  • Reply krantcents January 17, 2013 at 15:19

    My son had an unpaid internship with the City Attorney’s office for 4 weeks. during law school. The networking possibilities were beyond imagination. Internships do not always directly mean a job, but they are still worthwhile to put on a resume and add to your network.

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