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Unpaid Intern: To Be or Not to Be?

Unpaid Intern: To Be or Not to Be?

Karen Siwak

December 06, 2010

Many successful CEO’s started their careers as interns. One of my favorite stories involves Robert Herjavec, who waited tables while working for free for six months in order to get practical experience in the computer industry. As he described it in an interview with TVO’s Paula Todd, “I realized nobody was going to pay me to learn the skills I needed in order to get ahead.” He went on to earn millions from the sale of his internet security software, and is best known as one of the venture capitalists on the Dragon’s Den.

I have often heard the argument unpaid internships are exploitative, they take advantage of students. I tend to disagree. I say tend, because I am completely against the pay-to-work model offered by Dream University, in which wealthy off-spring pay thousands of dollars for the chance to attach a corporate name to their resume.

Some internships are better than others, and the deciding factor is not the money, but the kind of experience offered. A well-designed internship can provide invaluable professional growth opportunities. In an interview in Fortune online, Christi Pedra, President and CEO of Siemens Hearing describes what I would consider an ideal internship model:

“First…we make a big deal for our managers to get interns. Department managers submit a proposal for a project that can be completed in 10 weeks. It must have a measurable outcome and benefit to the business. The best proposals are granted interns…Second, we make it challenging. We give interns assignments that matter to them and to us…Third, we make it real…for example, our interns simplified manufacturing tool kits, audited and redefined work instructions, developed internal communication campaigns and validated software.” I recommended to my young friend she seriously consider the internship offer. Yes it would mean a few more months as a part-time waitress to pay the bills, but it could also represent the turning point in her career. As Pedra describes it, “Ten weeks ago, they entered as students, and now they will be leaving us as professionals.”