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Do unpaid internships pay off? -- Page 2

In Freismuth's case, there is a happy ending to the three-jobs-plus-an-internship scramble.

"I was at the right place at the right time," says Freismuth. "I interned from September to the end of the following January -- five or six months. Then I got the most ideal reward from my internship, in that I got hired."

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It wasn't a full-time job, but it was a paid start.

Ajit Joshi, of the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, in Washington, DC, has interned several times, including two unpaid stints at the State Department, and he now regularly supervises and mentors interns.

He says there are four clear benefits to a good internship, even if it is unpaid. He recommends making sure those four assumptions seem likely before you sign on.

"First, you've got a supervisor or colleagues on your team who are willing to mentor you," he says. "Second, you have a supervisor willing to offer meaningful opportunities. Third, there are opportunities for networking," which can be invaluable as you job-hunt.

"And fourth, you can stay focused on deliverables -- meaning, you can find some value that you have added to the organization. Any good résumé should say, 'the organization was here when I arrived, and when I left, it reached this point,'" Joshi says. "And an unpaid internship can still do that on your résumé."

No hard data, just hope
The Cooperative Education and Internship Association, which includes internship coordinators at campuses around the country, and the National Council of Employers, which releases closely watched data on college-graduate hiring, had no official numbers on unpaid internships and what they lead to.

But some anecdotal evidence from college internship coordinators and 20-somethings interviewed around the country is positive.

At the University of North Texas, out of all the students who take internships, "I'd say probably at least 80 percent are offered a job," says Gary Steele, president of the Cooperative Education and Internship Association and associate director of cooperative education at The University of North Texas. "They may not take that offer, but they do get the offer."

It also might be a graduation requirement. And that's the other amazing wrinkle in the internship game. In many majors, you now need an internship to get a college degree. So, in other words, you'll have to pay to work for free.

"The student can get credit for it as an elective," Steele says. "What better way to get three hours of credit and not have to attend class?

"Whether it's paid or unpaid, the benefit is still the same," says Steele. "They still get the experience. As far as the downside to an internship, there really isn't one if it's done as it's supposed to be done, which means it's related to the major."

Internships are a windfall for employers, and that may translate into a windfall for students or recent graduates.

"With any internship, paid or unpaid, if the student does a great job, it's a win-win situation for the employer," says Steele. "The employer sees a student who will work for nothing or not much money, and it only makes sense for that employer to hire them."

Work samples can lead to jobs
An unpaid internship can give you the samples you need to get a job elsewhere.

"At Bloomberg News, I wrote a few feature stories that I was really proud of," says David Novich, a young journalist in New York, "including one on how African-Americans invest in the stock market."

And there was another, long-term benefit, Novich says, and it's one that cuts across all kinds of internships. Being supervised was an education.

"There's no experience like watching someone edit your story," says Novich. "At Bloomberg, I got a solid foundation -- learning how to edit and say things more concisely -- that I still use today."

If it works well, an unpaid internship can have long-term benefits in the paid working world, supervisors say.

"If you take all these assumptions," says Joshi, referring to the markers of a good internship, "the intern would have a mentor for life, or at least five or 10 years.

"He'd also have a referee, a foot in the door, exposure to an organization, and he can see if he even likes the feel of an organization to work in," Joshi adds. "It's not to curry favor with a specific organization, it's to see if you'd like to work in that kind of field overall."

Many interns at USAID come from special fellowships that are limited to graduate students or competitive national fellowships like the Truman Fellowships, so in effect, they are subsidized by universities, philanthropists or the government.

Asked about the economic background of his colleagues, who often have unpaid internships on their résumés, Joshi noted that most grew up in comfortable surroundings.

"By and large everyone I know has come from middle, upper-middle class and upper class. I would be hard-pressed to find someone from a lower-income background."

Joshi says, there are a few programs -- like fellowships for West Virginians -- that can help young people who need some assistance taking a dream unpaid internship.

In general, Joshi says, his field isn't about the money, and he makes sure to tell his interns that.

"I try to make the pitch that it's not how much money you earn," Joshi says, "but are you happy in what you do?"

-- Posted: Aug. 1, 2005




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