One summer job opportunity is the unpaid internship. With the job market being so tight, it might make sense for you to consider working at an unpaid internship to gain some practical work experience which would make you easier to hire in the future. But before you accept an unpaid position, there are a few things that you should think about:
- Do you need the money? Dumb question, I know, every teenager needs money. But seriously, if you need a job because you have to pay your tuition, or buy a car, or whatever, then the unpaid internship is not an option for you. You’re better off flipping burgers at McDonald’s and getting a paycheck.
- What’s in it for you? I hate to sound like a mercenary, but if you’re going to work someplace for free, there has to be an upside to it. Will you learn a new job skill? Will you meet people who can help you get a better job next summer or during the school year? Will it look good on your resume? What is it about this job that makes it worth it to you to do the work for free? If the answer is nothing, then maybe you shouldn’t waste your time there.
For example: there’s an organization I know that routinely hires unpaid interns. The positions are part-time and usually last three or four months. The interns work on interesting projects, meet all sorts of clients of the business, and their employers openly promote them, “Do you know our intern Sarah? She’s graduating in May with a degree in accounting, I was wondering if you were looking to hire anyone?” No, I couldn’t hire Sarah but I did know of a company that was hiring and I suggested it. Her employer said, “I know they’re hiring, but they have a high turnover rate. I don’t think they treat their employees very well, we want Sarah to find a good job.” If you’re taking on an unpaid internship, you want to be someplace like that, where they actually care about you.
Another organization I know had a completely different attitude about the unpaid intern. The job consisted of sitting alone in a room making telephone solicitations for 40 hours a week. That’s not an internship, that’s slave labor. Their reasoning was that the economy was so bad that they could get a teenager to do the work for free if they called it an internship. They gave up on the idea of that internship, but I can imagine other organizations using the same logic. Here’s a good rule to thumb to follow: if you are actively engaged in bringing money into an organization, then you should be compensated for that type of work. Sales people get paid for their sales, period. If the job consists of sales or soliciting funds, it should be a paid position.
Taking on an unpaid position can be even more challenging than taking that paid job. For one thing, you’re going to work every day and there’s no paycheck waiting as your incentive, you have to really want the job. Do your homework; Google the company, make sure its a place you won’t be embarrassed to say you worked for. Maybe even Google your boss, make sure he’s not some serial killer that was just released from prison. (You think I’m joking here, no. Exaggerating, yes, joking, no. Google your boss.) Ask questions about what you’re expected to do and how you’re expected to do it. Know what you’re getting into.
If you do decide to take on that unpaid internship, treat it like a paid position. Dress appropriately for the job, always be on time, and do your best work. The reason you take the unpaid internship is to be a stepping stone to a paid position. The best way to do that is to make a good impression on the people you’re working for. If you slack off, you won’t get good references, and that’s the whole point of taking the unpaid job in the first place.