What is an internship, exactly, and is it worth doing? Where can I get one? Click here to learn more about what they are and how they can help you.
In today's society, the word "intern" conjures an image of a poor, sleepless, unpaid college student hoping some experience working for a company will make them a better hire in the future. However, the popular image of interns doesn't quite match the reality.
So, you ask, what is an internship like?
Here are the things you should know about the benefits of internships, the requirements, and where you can find them.
The Benefits Of Internship
Internships offer many benefits. While some of them are unpaid, the majority are not. Labor regulations tightly control the type of work interns are allowed to do. In general, interns cannot benefit the company in economic ways or displace work usually done by paid employees. In some areas, interns are also given non-monetary compensation (such as college credit) for the work done.
This is why the popular image of interns has them fetching coffee and otherwise doing some of the most tedious work imaginable - they're quite literally not allowed to do more. Most internships ultimately take the form of a work experience internship, which is functionally on-the-job training in a specific field. Research internships aren't quite as common, but they are available to people who look.
The primary benefits of internships include:
- Exploring A Career Path: About 33% of students change majors within their first three years of starting college, and about 10% change twice. Internships offer an opportunity to experience a career path and decide whether or not you want a job in that field.
- Developing And Refining Skills: Each field requires a particular set of skills - most of which can be learned. Interns have the chance to see how they measure up in the field and, if necessary, what they have to do to improve before looking for a permanent job.
- Networking: It's hard to understate how important networking is when you're looking for a job. In many cases, the professionals you work with can be used as references - or they can help convince their company to hire you when you graduate.
- Transitioning To Jobs: Some companies use internships as a way to test out potential recruits, and they'll make a job offer at the end of the internship (or, in some cases, when you're done with schooling). An employee who doesn't need as much training when they start getting paid is much easier for the company to integrate into their normal operations.
- Gaining Confidence: Internships provide an opportunity to practice what you've learned and demonstrate it before you're under the pressure of working for a company. Once you've successfully done the things you've learned, you'll have far more confidence in your ability to do it in the future - and companies love that.
- An Edge In The Job Market: People who work as interns are, ultimately, better hires. Most of them require less training and can handle more responsibilities. It's also possible to get a higher starting salary for these very reasons.
The Requirements Of Internships
There are few universal requirements for internships. One of the few standards in the industry is that most locations only accept students as interns (although the definition of "student" can be rather broad, and usually includes trade schools and other non-college educational institutes).
From there, most of the requirements vary by school, with different institutes imposing different requirements on companies looking for interns. Some common (but not universal) requirements include:
- The company must be appropriately licensed with the state, local municipalities, and any other relevant organization(s)
- The company must have policies that conform to all applicable legislation
- The company must have a safe work environment (OSHA compliant)
- The company must file paperwork with the school
- The company must submit to a pre-internship visit/evaluation by the school
- The student must have a GPA at or above a certain level
- The student must be able to work at the internship at the specified times
- The student must have enough of a financial cushion to work unpaid for the specified period
Some requirements may be waived for companies that accept internships on a near-constant basis from the school. For example, the school might only evaluate some locations annually, rather than every quarter.
For unpaid internships (the vast majority), employers must also meet six federal standards. If they violate these, you may be eligible for compensation. The requirements are:
- The Internship Must Provide Similar Training To An Educational Environment: Even if you're working with actual facilities, the training itself needs to be similar to what a school provides.
- The Internship Must Be For The Benefit Of The Intern: Internships are not a way for companies to unload unpleasant work onto unpaid workers. It must clearly benefit you, the intern, in ways that can be described and explained to others.
- The Intern Cannot Displace Existing Employees: You will work under other people, but you cannot replace them or the job they do. This is why there are some things you may not be allowed to do, regardless of how easy they are.
- The Employer Cannot Receive Immediate Advantage From The Intern's Activities: Fetching coffee isn't considered an immediate advantage, by the way. However, they aren't allowed to directly profit from what you're doing. At times, they may even have to take a small loss for having you.
- The Intern Is Not Owed A Job When The Internship Is Over: Unfortunately, this one works against you. Ask the company about whether they want to hire interns or if they're just providing experience if you want to progress straight to a paid position. You may need to change the company you plan to intern for.
- The Employer And The Intern Understand That The Intern Is Not Owed Wages: Companies cannot pretend they're going to pay you at the end, then suddenly say they're not going to. If they are offering a paid internship, get it in writing and check it with your school.
Legally, if the internship meets all six of these requirements, there is no employment relationship. Alert your school immediately if you believe there has been a violation of these standards. Some companies still try to take advantage of interns and profit from your work.
Where To Get An Internship
Now that you know more about the benefits and requirements of internships - and isn't it nice that most of the conditions need to be met by other people? - it's time to talk about actually getting one.
The first thing to do is visit your school's career center (or equivalent). These areas will help you with things like mock interviews. Many of them also have a selection of popular internships available and can help you apply for them.
Unfortunately, this is where things start to diversify. Some schools have agreements to send out a certain number of interns to specific companies - or they get a selection of positions and can assign students to each of them. Other schools have no access and expect students to find internships on their own.
If you can't find one at your school's career center, start studying your options. Consider various jobs in your field - typically, companies prefer to accept interns with areas of study that are relevant to the task at hand. From there, find the right person at the company to contact and ask them about internships.
You should be prepared for this - have a resume and a brief cover letter ready to explain who you are and why the company should accept you as an intern. If they don't have a program, they may ask you things like "What is an internship worth to us?", and you'll only be accepted if you can adequately explain this.
Note that recruiters, in particular, appreciate people who can provide information as soon as they ask for it. They're busy people, and if you have all the information ready to send, you'll significantly increase your chance of landing the job. You may need to send an email while you're on the phone, so have a desktop or laptop ready. Do not rely on a smartphone for that.
If you aren't granted the position immediately, send a followup email in two weeks thanking them for their time and consideration. Do not ask if you were accepted or when you'll start - they will tell you. You may also need to go through a series of interviews, which can be in-person or over the phone.
Many people do not get the first internship they apply for, so keep trying until you land one.
What Are The Benefits For Companies?
Significant benefits of internships for companies include:
- Finding future employees at a much lower cost, which saves money on recruitment
- Taking advantage of students' tendency to talk so you can come across as a desirable employer
- Testing new talent before offering them a job
- Improving employee retention
- Increased productivity among existing employees
- Improved perspective among the company's teams
- Offering support to the community
- Taking advantage of highly-motivated (if temporary) employees
For most companies, the long-term benefits of an internship program significantly outweigh the cost of running it. This is why so many companies are willing to start the programs even if they hadn't considered it in the past.