Unpaid internships on the rise
What happens when you suddenly get laid off or hate your job and want to switch career paths? Many people, out of university in their 20s and 30s, are taking unpaid internships to get their foot in the door. And with the pessimistic economy, more companies are providing internships to the unemployed who don’t want a gap in their resumes.
“Internships have been significantly increasing for lots of reasons, even previous to the recession,” said Lonnie Dunlap, executive director of Northwestern University Career Services. “It can be a very valuable way of getting opportunities in non-academic areas.”
Dunlap said employers have rediscovered internships during the recession, but noted that some employers have also taken advantage of people’s need to work.
“It’s important to look at the employer’s history and to see if it fits with the worker’s and employer’s needs,” she said.
A Tale of Three Adult Interns
Rick O’Connor, 37, worked the financial field, doing “stuff in retirement,” until he was laid off at age 30. Having an interest in radio, he decided to intern at Chicago’s WGN Radio.
“People were really questioning me,” he said. “Financially, we were able to do it but it was just a stigma.”
The idea seemed “crazy” because his wife wasn’t working, he said. But O’Connor’s goal was turn the internship into a job. After his internship was over, he hung around the station, completing random tasks, to keep his “exposure level” up.
When a full time producer left, O’Connor was in the running for the job because he had positioned himself well, he said. He worked at the station until he was laid off last year.
“The internship is a long job interview. You keep marketing it and treat it like a real job.”
O’Connor is currently going to school to become an English teacher.
Cole, an Austin, Texas resident, took the six-month apprenticeship with Kocurek Family Artisanal Charcuterie in October with hopes of getting hired after the experience. Apprenticeships with chefs are common in Europe, he says, unlike in the United States where people go to culinary school.
“We live in a culture where you’re spending $40,000 to $50,000 to go and make $10 dollars an hour,” he said. “That’s ridiculous.”
Cole previously earned a living fixing rims on luxury cars. To pay the bills, Cole works odd jobs and helps his wife with her photography business.
At his apprenticeship, Cole is learning the art of smoking and preserving meats, which he finds more gratifying than fixing rims.
“It takes a leap of faith to know that you’re not going to make a lot of money but develop yourself as an individual and as a person,” he said.
Anna Premo, 26, went from working in the fashion industry to working in the Amazon jungle for a tea company. In February 2010, after being laid off from her job at a clothing company, she took an unpaid internship with nonprofit buildOn.
“In truth, the job I had wasn’t satisfying on a personal level,” she wrote in an email from Archidona, Ecuador. “I was constantly volunteering after work at nonprofits around Chicago, hoping to put myself in a prime position to apply for an opening if the moment presented itself.” She had a connection with the nonprofit because she had volunteered with buildOn before losing her job.
While interning, Premo collected unemployment, worked odd office jobs and babysat to pay her bills. She also cut back on “comforts” such as having brunch with friends and shopping. Eventually, Premo was hired as buildOn’s social media writer.
She said her internship proved invaluable in making her a more competitive young professional, helping her get her current position at Runa Amazon Guayusa.
She adds, “It made me recognize how important it is to truly believe in what you choose as a career path.”
Premo gives some advice to people currently unemployed or looking to change careers:
“Keep moving forward. Recognize you have choices every step of the way and make decisions based on the information you have at the time. Your dream job may not appear as quickly as you might hope, but as long as you are taking productive steps toward the end goal, that is all a person can do. Opportunities will present themselves.”