7 things you might want to say to yourself if you’re an unpaid intern

And here is our first story/guestpost by Irene

As a recent graduate, I’ve been living in an uncertainty-hell ever since I graduated last June. I had heard about the many challenges grads had to face when they were about to start their careers.  Never thought it would happen to me. After all, I was one of the top students of my class, and I had all sorts of international experiences, which are as important as English nowadays (ah, globalization!). After 2 months of applying for all-things-business in most regions around the world (as in, North & South America, Europe, & Asia), I started to get some responses from both big corporations and startups. Yay! I thought. No, not really.

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While Big Name would give me its name to put on my CV and a career plan from today through the next 70 years, Geekco would offer the thrill of not knowing what was going to happen the next day (can’t get enough of that!) and the satisfaction of having an actual impact on the business. Sounds like a tough choice, right? So I said to myself, “let’s see how much they offer”, in the hopes that my survival instinct would make the decision for me. But life ain’t there to make choices easy, so when I received both offers, both companies offered the same: £0. Exchange rates fluctuate, but last time I checked that translates into US$0.

So the situation was different then. I found myself torn between a slave-ish-promising career at Big Name and slave-ish-satisfying career at Geekco. I went for Geekco. At least that gave me the certainty that my life would not be slave-ish for the next 70 years.

Here are some of the things I learnt during the process (hint: they are neither hard nor soft skills).

  1. Unpaid internships are just wrong. And they will never, ever, be justifiable. If you’re applying to work at Big Name, chances are your went through a few weeks of selection process in which you had to show how you were better than anyone else for a position. They are not hiring someone who they don’t believe capable of adding substantial value to the company. So you’re worth something to them. If you’re applying to work at Geekco, they have probably come to you with something like “at the moment, we have financial constraints, so we just can’t pay people”. I remember my second year Labor Economics class: the smaller the organization, the greater the marginal product of an additional employee.  So the fact is that they might not have the means to do it, but they need to acknowledge that that situation is not your responsibility, and that you in fact have the right to be compensated for what you offer to the company. And they need to look for a solution to at least be able compensate you in the future (if immediate pay is not doable). After all, if you have a good product, you will eventually get investors, won’t you?image
  2. It doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters where you go…and where you are. No matter how driven you are to pursue your dream, you need to beware of reality. This includes the environment you live in (*cough*crisis) and your own constraints (money, family, culture). That is not to say that if you want to work in, say, Greece, you shouldn’t contact as many people and work as hard as possible to get a job there. It means that, if you don’t, you shouldn’t beat yourself up. Because you don’t have control over a great deal of the situation. How is this related to unterns? Well, some graduates eventually find an internship. And when they do, they are just so blindly grateful that they try to ignore any negative aspects, regardless of the severity. You need to give yourself credit for the effort and time of you have spent to get a job, so when this happens, you know you deserve more and that you just happened to be in a very unfortunate situation. Keep working, but take a second to see how far you’ve gone with what you started, and don’t idolize your employer (they are not doing you a favor when they give you the amazing opportunity of being their untern!).
  3. Interns are not robots. I live on a budget. I don’t go to the movies. I don’t buy new clothes. I don’t even take the tube sometimes to go to work, just to save £2. But I find myself spending those same £2 on a Hazelnut Latte at midday, or £4 on a sandwich if I didn’t have time to prepare lunch the night before after a 9-to-10-hour day. Now, my family told me to only spend on basic needs. Yet I can’t. The energy and effort I spend on working need to be compensated. A company that doesn’t recognize this is a company that thinks of people as machines. No, wait, that’s not correct; machines need energy.image
  4. Learning opportunities need to be actual learning opportunities. If you read an ad where the main point in the “What do we offer?” section is “great learning opportunity”….watch out! Don’t get me wrong. I love learning. I love developing social skills, knowing how different applications work, etc., etc.  I am not the 9-5 type who just goes to the office to get a paycheck at the end of the month. But when someone talks about learning, I want to see results. And learning isn’t an easy thing to measure. So if you are an untern-to-be, write down a list of skills you would like to acquire and check if that matches your potential employer’s promise.
  5. “They reap what they sow”. You want to work. A company offers you an interesting position. None or small salary. Expenses are not covered. Not much flexibility in terms of schedule, so the chances of getting a paid second job are not high. No promise of a possible full-time position after that. And “you will have to work hard”. Yet, they will expect 100% commitment and loyalty from you. Well, ignore those expectations. Keep looking for something better because you deserve it. And you will eventually find it. And when you do, you should not have a single shred of guilt when you take the opportunity presented to you.
  6. Sell yourself, don’t discount yourself. Human Resources Management 101. If a candidate is overqualified for a position, he/she will keep looking for a better one, and if this fails, he/she will be not be a satisfied employee. Ever. That’s what the company should know. If you are a recent graduate and job-hunting, your expectations might be a little too high at first (like mine were), so you will probably have to go through a self-negotiating phase to define which things you are willing to give up. Am I willing to accept a lower salary? Am I willing to get a not-super-stimulating job, but where the economic compensation is higher? And that’s totally fine. But you need to know yourself, and you need to know how much you’re worth and, ideally, you need to know how much value you would be adding to a company if you were to join them (a rough estimate!). So when a company offers you something that you think is below what you deserve, you can either reject it and be capable of arguing why, or accept it and make sure that they understand you are accepting a compromise when it comes to their offer. No need to be nasty: the better you know yourself, the more reasonable you’re going to look like if you bring this up. And you would not give them grounds to avoid giving you the salary you originally in the long term.
  7. A 6-month internship sounds like…a not very smart HR team (or an extremely smart one!). How long does someone need to know whether a person is a good fit for a position or not? The average answer nowadays is “between 6 months and 1 year…at least”. And let’s not take risks in the process, so why pay them what their normally salary would be? I understand hiring recent graduates involves some risk. You know, little experience, little exposure to the “real world”, etc. The problem is, those are things you never stop getting better at. So one could argue that anyone should be an intern forever (hopefully I’m not giving any ideas to HR managers!). Instead, I think anyone could be a proper employee from the very beginning, and all you need is some guidance in the first few (read: three maximum) months. So when you see a job offer that sounds like “6-months and then we’ll see”, you are either dealing with an HR team that have difficulties to evaluate employees performance, or with an HR team that is looking for any excuse to stick to its budget.

Now, all of these might look like pretty common sense things to say. What I found while trying to start my professional career is that it’s definitely not the type of common sense most companies want us to have. Lucky for me, I found one that encourages its employees to defend this way of thinking and doing things, which is why I’m a proud Fabrily intern. It is great being recognized for your work, even when you just got out of school. I’m also well aware that this situation I went through does not apply to every company. Unfortunately, the number of companies hiring unterns is increasing, not only in the Arts industry but also in various business departments. The reason I decided to write about it is because I heard some student unions in London have ongoing campaigns against unternships (Goldsmiths, University of the Arts & King’s College), which I fully support. I don’t believe in low-cost minds. We are not talking about a low-cost flight with no comfortable seats. We are talking about a low-cost flight with no pilot. Pretty scary, huh?

Irene is one of our new Fabrily interns working on Marketing. She decided to combine her experience as an intern and Fabrily’s awesome values to share some thoughts about why unpaid internships are so wrong. 

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We will keep a close watch on this subject, to discuss or share your opinion on unpaid internships, join us on facebook or follow us on twitter.

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2 comments

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