The Value of Internships – Even Unpaid Ones

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article on unpaid internships. In promoting the value of these internships the article concluded that “Employers look for a set of real-world experiences that demonstrate skill, professionalism, and hard work… Unpaid internships are a way that people just entering the work force, or embarking on a path to a new career, can test their dreams and build relationships with mentors and professionals who could connect them to future job opportunities.”

Those are pretty much the standard benefits enumerated to justify seeking unpaid work. But earlier this month New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote an article on the value of internships which stressed another benefit: convincing employers that you can make a positive difference to their organization. He quoted Eleanora Sharef and Nick Sedlet, founders of HireArt, a start-up specializing in matching job seekers with job creators by testing applicants on real-world skills that mimic the jobs they’re applying for. Here are selected excerpts:

“Internships are increasingly important today… because skills are increasingly important in the new economy and because colleges increasingly don’t teach the ones employers are looking for. Experience, rather than a degree, has become an important proxy for skill and internships give you that experience. So grab one wherever you can, because, even if you’re just serving coffee, it is a way to see how businesses actually work and which skills are prized by employers. Of course, for all these reasons… ‘it is almost as hard to get a paid internship today as it is to get an actual job.’ This summer, Goldman Sachs hired 350 paid investment banking interns out of 17,000 applicants.

Adding Value

Since so many internships are unpaid these days… there is a real danger that only ‘rich kids’ can afford them, which will only widen our income gaps. The key, if you get one… is to remember ‘that companies don’t want generalists to help them think big; they want people who can help them execute’ and ‘add value.’

But what does ‘add value’ mean? It means… showing that you have some creative flair — particularly in design, innovation, entrepreneurship, sales or marketing, skills that can’t be easily replaced by a piece of software, a machine or a cheaper worker in India.

Do not let yourself get to the point where you have done nothing for six months. Don’t let yourself go without building something on your own or taking an online course… to show that you have not been slacking off. Even if (or especially if) you have been out of work for more than six months, stay engaged in the industry that you aspire to join, so you can better craft your job interview answers.

In applying for internships the two biggest mistakes are: One, a cover letter that tells an employer all sorts of things that the applicant has done but fails to explain how being hired would ‘add value’ for that company. (NOTE FROM JIM WEINSTEIN – THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST COMMON WEAKNESSES I SEE IN RESUMES AT ALL CAREER LEVELS). Two, trying to be everything at once. Some candidates will say, ‘I am a great marketer and I’ve also been a college professor and I also know Excel and I was also once an Olympic ice skater.’ Employers don’t have the mental capacity to decide for you how you are going to help them in one specific capacity. It’s important to have a narrative that speaks to what you’re good at and what you can do exactly.” Or, more specifically, what you might be able to do that could make a difference.