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What Is an Internship – Benefits, Pay & Expectations

By Michael Lewis

internInternships, both paid and unpaid, have become increasingly popular over the last decade with employers and candidates. Employers have long recognized the significant expenses incurred to identify, recruit, hire, and train employees, only to lose the employee who then quits and moves to another company or industry. Presently, one in three employees in the U.S. leaves his or her job for a new position each year – this is substantially higher than the rate of one in four that existed in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The associated financial costs, trade secret security risks, and loss of productivity for companies, as well as the delayed advancement opportunities for employees, have spurred both parties to embrace company internships as a “trial run,” a period where each can realistically determine whether a long-term relationship would be mutually beneficial. And whether they stay on board, interns can gain a wealth of practical experience that can set them on the path to a long and rewarding career.

Benefits of an Internship

Internships are generally formal programs developed and offered by companies to potential future employees, whereby the company provides a limited on-the-job experience in return for the intern’s labor, either free or at minimal pay.

The experience enables the individual to:

  • Test Career Interest. Through on the job experience, an intern is in a better position to determine whether he or she has an interest in a particular career, industry, or company.
  • Network. Interns can create a network of professional contacts that may benefit them throughout their working lives.
  • Solidify Credentials. The experience (even a few months) of actually working in a position increases your credibility with potential employers, and may earn additional or necessary school credits.
  • Secure Employment. Successful internships often lead to employment offers with the company sponsoring the internship.

An internship usually lasts from two to four months, during which time neither party is committed to a longer relationship. The training provided to the intern generally includes job shadowing, whereby the intern works with an employee doing the work that the intern would likely perform if hired.

Intern Pay

While many interns receive a minimum hourly wage in the United States, compensation is not required if the internship is:

  • Intern-Directed. The training is for the benefit of the intern, not the company, and the transferred skills are not unique to the sponsoring company.
  • Training-Focused. Interns must not replace regular employees or perform unsupervised services similar to what an employee would do if available.
  • Noncommittal. The intern is not required to be hired at the end of the intern program.
  • Mutually Agreed Upon. The intern and company understand and agree to the conditions at the start of the internship. For that reason, most companies require a formal agreement of internship which details the conditions and limits of the program.

How to Find Internships

Vault, a career intelligence website, has identified 821 intern programs in the United States in a variety of industries and major companies. Though an excellent resource, their database doesn’t purport to be all-inclusive, and undoubtedly represents a fraction of the intern programs available from smaller regional and local companies.

There are a number of alternative sources and strategies to solicit internships including the career counselors at colleges and universities, professional organizations such as the local Society of CPAs or the local attorneys’ Bar Association, as well as industry-focused associations and societies. Friends and family often work at companies that have internships or know other employers that have programs. With a little thought and a little elbow grease, the internship opportunities are ripe for those who want to kick-start their professional careers.

interning

Mutual Expectations

What the Company Expects

Most companies, even those in the youth-oriented, artistic fields of technology and advertising, have a specific style and culture into which you are expected to blend with minimal disruption. Even as an intern, you should:

  • Behave Professionally. Dress professionally, use appropriate language, and behave as expected in a work environment. Don’t show up to work in a bank dressed in jeans and flip-flops, unless the other employees are wearing similar casual wear. Also, don’t wear a three-piece suit to the casual offices of a game software developer unless their dress is business wear. Don’t flirt or joke around unless and until you become one of the team and know that your actions are acceptable to others.
  • Act Your Age. Understand that there are ongoing activities more important than your happiness. Don’t get impatient, angry, or frustrated, and treat employees and customers with respect. If you need information or direction, calmly ask for it. And above all, remember, you are working for the company – not the other way around.
  • Be Responsible. Show up for work when expected and work until it is time to quit. Begin and end coffee breaks and lunches as scheduled. Don’t spend time texting friends or making personal calls, and don’t surf the Internet. Don’t go on Facebook and comment about people you meet or the experiences you have while at the company. An internship is an opportunity to see whether the work is satisfying to you and a career you want to pursue. By working as if you were already employed, you will get full benefit from the experience and the information to make an intelligent career employment choice.
  • Give Your Best Effort. Internship is a two-way street: The company is looking at you and deciding whether you will fit in, just as you are looking at them. Make the most of your opportunity by completing the tasks asked of you as scheduled or before, without complaint, and in full compliance with directions. If you have suggestions to perform work more efficiently or effectively, discuss your ideas with your mentor or the employee assigned to lead you after the assignment is over. While you may be eager to demonstrate your commitment to the job, making a recommendation prematurely is often the result of not understanding all the requirements and the assumption that others haven’t made similar recommendations.

What You Should Expect as an Intern

As an intern, you have committed to invest a valuable resource in the company: your time. As a consequence, you should expect, at a minimum, the following:

  • Respect. The fact that you are young or inexperienced does not entitle company supervisors or other employees to treat you rudely, obnoxiously, or, above all, illegally. You are at the company voluntarily in an effort to determine whether or not employment would be satisfying to you and beneficial to the company. If the environment is hostile, demeaning, or unfulfilling, you have achieved one of your objectives: You know that your employment at the company is not meant to be.
  • Education and Training. Unfortunately, some companies have turned to free interns instead of paid employees to fulfill the mundane, boring tasks of their business in order to save money. As a consequence, interns spend their days filing papers, running errands, and generally performing “gofer” tasks instead of getting a real look at the operations of the business. While beneficial to the company in that they cut business expenses short-term, there is no benefit to you. You are in no better shape to determine whether a career in the industry suits you and you’re unlikely to be offered a job, simply being replaced by another intern when your internship is complete. If that is your experience, contact the sponsor and complain about the program. If you’ve been unpaid, you can also contact the employment authorities and make a claim for wages. However, you should be aware that most jobs contain elements of tedium and dissatisfaction. Before complaining, observe the work of the regular employees. If they are spending similar time doing unsatisfying work, you don’t have a complaint – you just need to look elsewhere for employment.
  • Communication and Feedback. It’s important that you understand what is expected of you and how you are performing during the intern period. Regardless of whether or not you are interested in eventual full-time employment, you want to leave a good impression with the company, its employees, and customers with whom you have been in contact. This behavior may also provide you a source for recommendations for other employment. Even if the experience was unsatisfactory, there is no need to burn bridges. An internship is a trial period, a time for learning and correction. Without adequate and truthful feedback, you can’t improve your future performance. If a formal feedback system is not in place, regularly ask your supervisor by email or in writing about your performance and what you can do to improve.

Keys to a Successful Internship

1. Be Visible and Make an Impression
Introduce yourself to other employees, managers, supervisors, and officers of the company at every opportunity. Remain friendly, and exhibit behavior that sets you apart so that people remember you favorably. Send written notes of thanks to those people who help you.

2. Exhibit a “Can Do” Attitude
Eagerly accept any task given to you – even menial jobs such as getting coffee. Keep up with the news about the company and any major events that affect it. If a big sale occurs, for example, congratulate the salesperson, and ask for tips on his or her best sales techniques. Participate in office meetings appropriately, responding to questions or offering suggestions when asked.

3. Ask Questions
If you don’t know or understand something, ask about it and remember the answers. No one expects you to know everything about the business; that’s the purpose of the internship.

However, ask questions that show you’ve done your homework, and take notes that you can review to reinforce your understanding. Don’t ask questions that have obvious answers or repeat the same question – people will know you’re either blowing smoke to try to impress them, or simply don’t care enough to remember the answer.

4. Make Valuable Contacts
The former President of the United States, George H.W. Bush, was reputed to have one of the most extensive list of personal contacts of any person seeking public office; his Rolodex was legendary, with names ranging from the leaders of the world to the children of gardeners who had served on his father’s estate. President Bush worked actively to maintain his contacts, never knowing when a person from his past might be valuable in his current activities.

Businesspeople are no different. As you get older, many problems are solved by who you know, rather than what you know.

5. Exit With Grace and Gratitude
Ideally, an internship enables you to develop new skills, gain valuable contacts, and increase your personal confidence. These accomplishments are possible because the sponsoring company was willing to invest its time and resources to design and maintain an intern program that met its needs, as well as the goals of the interns.

As a consequence, you should be thankful for the chance to participate in the program and work with the company. Let the company know of your appreciation by sending personal letters of thanks to the president, the manager of human resources, and the mentors and employees who shared their time and knowledge with you during the program.

6. Reinforce the Value of Interning
If you obtained the intern position through a school or sponsoring organization, inform them of your appreciation of the program with specific mention of the experience you gained. These actions will preserve the program for those who follow you, just as you benefited from the interns who preceded your employment.

interning

What Happens Next?

According to the latest data, approximately one-half of internships result in a job offer. Being an intern in a company gives you a leg up on other applicants who might be seeking the same position. Even in instances where an intern is not offered a job or declines the opportunity, the benefits of internship are many. Rather than diving headfirst into the pool of employment, an internship allows you to enter the water at your own pace, getting more comfortable until you’re fully immersed.

Following the completion of the internship, you may decide to:

  • Work With the Sponsoring Company. You may accept an offer of employment from the company at which you interned.
  • Seek Another Internship. You might look for another internship with a company that better fits your personality and career choices.
  • Change Careers. You may learn that the job failed to meet your expectations. As a consequence, you might decide to go back to school to pursue a different field or learn a new skill set.

Whatever your decision, you will have benefited by eliminating the worry that you made the wrong choice of employers or wasted your time pursuing a career for which you are not suited. The people you meet and the experience you gain as an intern will be with you always, and will make you a better employee as your career progresses.

Final Word

According to the Right Management Manpower Group, almost half of the employees surveyed in 2011 indicated that their job was “unrewarding and saps my energy.” This same research suggests that as many as 84% of the employees polled say they planned to look for new jobs in 2011, up from 60% reported in 2010.

Often, the choice of a job is dictated by financial circumstances or decided in haste, leading to major job dissatisfaction and workplace burnout. Participating in an internship and making the most of the opportunity will encourage you to make better employment choices initially – and possibly throughout your career.

Have you ever had an internship? Was it beneficial? If you could do it over again, what would you do differently?

(photo credit: Bigstock)

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Michael Lewis
Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States.

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Comments

  • http://barbarafriedbergpersonalfinance.com/ Manette @BFPF

    Back when I was still teaching in college, I have always recommended internship to my students. It is their first step to the corporate world. It was also through internship that I landed on my first real job.

  • http://twitter.com/murphy_tayl Taylor Murphy

    I attend a business university and it’s the norm to have at least one internship before you graduate (although most students far exceed that). I think that if more students interned during their undergrad, they’d find they’d have more job opportunities than if they hadn’t.

  • Michael Lewis

    Taylor and Manette,
    I got a degree in Industrial Management/Engineering and found I actually hated the work on my first job. A year later, with a wife and young daughter, I was looking for another job. I was fortunate to find a position on Wall Street which I loved and which has served me well for my career.

  • http://pftoday.com/ Michelle @ PFToday.com

    Internships can be great, but not getting paid or getting underpaid is a big issue. If you’ve got valuable skills, make sure that you’re getting paid a fair amount–I’ve found employers tend to treat interns as “slave labor” in a lot of cases.

  • Michael Lewis

    Unfortunately, some companies have turned to “free labor” during the economic recession, taking advantage of students’ lack of job opportunities. An internship should be like a courtship where both parties have a period where they can see where if they are meant to be. the law is pretty specific about how intern programs should be run. If you find yourself in an exploited situation, report the situation to the school counselors who run the intern program in which you participate and the state/Federal labor authorities.

  • Nunya

    It is generally a bad idea to make a wage claim. Even scut work will help with a reference and can provide valuable networking resources.

  • Michael Lewis

    Nunya,
    While I agree with you in most situations, there are certainly valid reasons to make a claim when the company sponsoring the internship is clearly exploiting the economy, the intern, and the sponsoring organizations. Companies which sponsor internships should be motivated to provide a good view into their company and the industry, an experience not unlike what one would expect if hired. Many companies, particularly smaller companies experiencing financial difficulties, use intern programs as a way to extend their labor force for little or no expense.
    I question whether a reference from such a company would be worthwhile or even meaningful to another potential employer – bad apples are generally known throughout an industry.

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