How to Take Advantage of Unpaid Internships Before They Take Advantage of You

unpaid-internWe’ve all seen this one too many times, especially in the past three year: “This is an unpaid internship”.  We were understanding at first, if a little grudgingly, because the economy took a nose dive, and we hoped it would turn around over the next few months. Little did we know, those months became years, and the “unpaid internship” became the norm, and the norm became annoying, and in many cases, illegal. Many of the ads I see on Indeed.com, Craigslist, Mediabistro, and other job listing aggregates include open positions that are, in every sense of the word, “jobs”. However, by adding the word “internship” to the end of the ad, that position magically becomes a source of free labor. Don’t fall into that trap. There are many things to look out for while job hunting, and once you recognize them, you’ll be better equipped to protect yourself against labor exploitation.

First and foremost, you need to understand the definition of a proper and legal internship. According to the United States Department of Labor, there are 6 criteria that a legal unpaid internship must meet:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

Doesn’t sound like 99% of the job ads you’ve seen, does it? Most of the social media internships I’ve seen ask that you are an “expert” in social media. In many cases they’re seeking “ninjas”, “gurus”, and on occasion, “Jedis” (I’ll have a post about this coming up next). If you’re already experienced in social media, then the job lister had better come up with some advanced social media techniques to teach you, otherwise they only want your skills for free. What about number 2? Some would argue that the experience you gain from that internship is a direct benefit to you. True, to an extent. But if you’re not learning anything new, and you’re doing actual work, then you ought to be paid for it. Then there’s number 3. You need to be working under close supervision from existing (and usually more experienced) staff for the position to be a legally unpaid internship. And no, having someone check in on you once in a while doesn’t count. Most important is number 4, which is why I highlighted it on the list. It really speaks for itself. If a position needs to be filled, and that position serves an important function to the company in question, that position is, by definition, a job, not an internship!

This message is geared toward those who want to break into social media, because that’s where I have the most experience. This career path utilizes a tool that you use every single day to communicate frequently and effectively to large audience. You already know how to use these social platforms, and what’s left for you to learn are the bells and whistles you might not yet understand or even know about. If you’re looking to become more experienced, look for a legitimate internship where you know you will be taught the right kind of language, methods of written communication, and proper use of social media tools. There is a wealth of knowledge and tutorials on the web, and if you’re serious about becoming a social media marketer, you need to educate yourself on your time! So how do you know what to look for? By seeking out illegal unpaid internships.

Wait, isn’t that a little counter-intuitive? Not necessarily. By looking for these job ads (don’t worry, you’ll find them quite easily), you can find out what potential employers are looking for in an ideal candidate for a paid position. Once you know what employers want, you can take stock of your strengths and weaknesses, find the tutorials and online classes you need to bolster your skills, and become more desirable on the job market.

Just remember: internships are for learning and gaining new skills. Jobs fulfill a specific function for a prospective employer. You can learn and gain new skills without some company reaping the benefits of your hard work. You shouldn’t have to compete with more experienced people to land a position that’s supposed to educate and help the less experienced. It’s wrong, it’s immoral, and most importantly, it’s illegal. Find out what skills are required for the job you want and educate yourself. You can put these skills to practice on your own and make it as visible or invisible as you’d like.

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