Harnessing The Power Of An Internship

A step in that internship hunt.

hide captionA step in that internship hunt.

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This season, many students are putting the traditional summer internships on their agendas. Many see internships as an opportunity to get a foot in the door and to jumpstart careers. But recently, there has been much criticism that this training time might be exploitive. Host Michel Martin speaks with career expert and author Lindsey Pollack about what to look out for when selecting an internship and how to make the most of the experience.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

And now to our weekly conversation about personal finance. Today is the first day of summer. But many college students are already on their summer break. And of course some people will be spending their summers at the beach or the pool. But others will be spending their time on another right of passage: a summer internship.

Internships have become almost required in some circles. They're a way to explore a potential career and hopefully a way to make some money. But there's a growing chorus of critics who are arguing that too many internships aren't worth the time and effort and they're actually just a source of cheap labor.

We wanted to know more about making internships count so we've called on Lindsey Pollack. She's author of the book "Getting from College to Career." She tells us she's an expert on next generation career trends and she's also the spokesperson for LinkedIn, a social networking site that helps people network professionally. Lindsey, thanks so much for joining us.

LINDSEY POLLACK: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: How important is it, do you think, to have an internship today versus, say, 10 or 15 years ago?

POLLACK: You know, internships have become increasingly important. When I graduated from college 15 years ago, it was still OK to work at a summer camp or lifeguard. And now what I'm seeing is students graduating with four or five, six internships, so much, much more important than it was and a lot more controversy around the subject, as you mentioned.

MARTIN: Now, are we talking about paid or unpaid internships? And do people really view those in the same way?

POLLACK: They do. You know, on a resume you often don't distinguish between whether something was paid or unpaid. So it's about getting the experience, but of course students have to think about whether they can do a paid or unpaid work experience.

MARTIN: Now, you know, last year the U.S. Department of Labor actually published some guidelines for private and for-profit companies to make clear what unpaid interns can and cannot do. For example, the internship must benefit the intern and the intern cannot displace actual workers or paid workers, I guess would be the way to say it.

So, how big of a deal is this controversy - as you were saying over whether unpaid interns are actually being exploited or not?

POLLACK: You know, I've seen it around the media a lot and it's certainly the talk on college campuses, which is because of the bad economy, are people saying, oh, we'll just hire some interns to do work that we used to pay people for because once we call them internships, suddenly it's magically OK to not pay people. And I think that puts a lot of college students in an uncomfortable position, because they want the experience, but they also want to get paid if they're doing work that somebody got paid to do before.

MARTIN: Well, how would you actually wind up negotiating that, actually? Can you really negotiate that?

POLLACK: You know, it's really tough on the students because, you know, they feel very powerless. They want the experience. They need the resume experience and credentials to land jobs after college and they don't have a lot of negotiating room. So I think it's really up to, you know, the laws. Up to the career services offices on college campuses to help students understand what they're getting into. And some unpaid internships are perfectly legitimate, but they have to be careful to know which those are.

MARTIN: What about, you know, kids who have to work for money to go back to school, so they can't do these unpaid intern programs. How would you recommend a student handling that scenario when they see perhaps that, you know, maybe there is some professional benefit or some networking benefit to be gained by these unpaid internship positions? But they do need to earn some money.

POLLACK: You know, you're really getting to the heart of the issue because this whole unpaid internship issue is overlapping with the tremendous student loans that students have today, where they really have to start paying those back, or at least making a dent in their, you know, during their summer. So this is where a lot of the unfairness comes in.

We don't want a situation where only wealthy young people can take on unpaid internships. So, you know, a couple of suggestions for students who might be in that situation, they want the work experience. Perhaps they can get it by working part time.

There's a new trend called virtual internships where you can do things like, you know, run a company's social media campaign or do something like that as an intern, but you can do it on your own hours while you work as well.

And, you know, the other issue is whether or not you get school credit. Some people are paying for credits at a university and then working for free in internships to earn those credit hours. And I think universities really play a big role in this and have to make sure that they protect students and don't require them to work for free because of this issue that a lot of them actually need cash to live and to go to school.

MARTIN: Here's the other side of the issue. Apprenticeships, internships sometimes involve some not-so-glamorous tasks: stapling, answering phones, you know, photocopying, getting coffee. And, you know, I do hear employers say, what's up with these kids with this attitude? I did, you know, I got coffee when I was their age, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

POLLACK: Absolutely.

MARTIN: What is the problem? So, what is realistic for young people to expect in that kind of an environment from an internship?

POLLACK: Yeah. This is where I get a little tough on the students today. And it's kind of that Generation Y, millennial generation issue that you're talking about. A lot of young people don't want to do the grunt work. And I think back to my first internship in college. I remember having to drive to three different cafes to get fat-free muffins for my boss, you know, because that's all she wanted to eat.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

POLLACK: But in addition to that, I was able to sit in on meetings. It was a nonprofit. So I sat in on donor meetings. I got to go to networking events. I got to write the newsletter. You have to see the balance, that no job - even the jobs that we do at different levels above internships, there's always going to be some grunt work and some stapling and some administrative stuff.

So I would really encourage students to take that work with a grain of salt, see that it's part of any job. But then look for the opportunities to go above and beyond that kind of basic work to get what they really need out of the internship, which is experience and networking.

MARTIN: And, finally, let's say a student does land an internship - whether it's paid or unpaid - with a corporation that does have a record of hiring, you know, interns. Like, there are some companies, for example, that even if you wind up, you know, you start out in the mailroom, but that is known to be, you know, a track that does lead to something. How do you recommend that the students handle that experience to make sure that they impress the people that they want to impress and are invited back?

POLLACK: Number one, do the work. When you're asked to something, you know, do it pleasantly. Do it the best you can, no matter what it is. Network with the people in the internship, your peers, the people above you. Make sure that you're somebody who's known. You're not someone who just sits at your desk. And perhaps most importantly, once the internship ends, keep in touch. Let them know that you're interested, and don't fall off the radar screen after the internship is over.

MARTIN: Lindsey Pollack is the author of "Getting from College to Career." She's also the global spokesperson for LinkedIn, a social networking site that helps people network professionally. And she joined us from her home office in New York. Lindsey Pollack, thanks so much for joining us.

POLLACK: Thank you again.

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