Not All Internships Are Made Equal - A Cautionary Tale
So I’ve got this friend who did an internship in a tech company. He was really lucky because it was a really small company so he’d get the chance to really learn about the life of a small flourishing startup, and get mentored by a marketing expert. I have to admit I was envious.
As he learned about marketing, he shared the process with me: You select a target sector, and then compile a detailed database with company names, addresses, contact details, information about the technology they use, their social media usage, and other items of information. This is the first stage.
Through this process he learned why companies spend a great deal of money on purchasing similar lists as he found the process to be rather tedious, but he still relished the idea of taking the process from start to finish, and looked forward to finding out how the companies would be approached, not to mention the results of the marketing.
So in his seven weeks he spent many hours, and even days compiling databases. Even when the other members of the company had meetings together - which, he confided in me, was disappointing as he’d thought he was going to be treated like a staff member - he remained alone in the office compiling these databases (there were several). Sometimes when the other staff members had other confidential meetings he was instructed to stay at home and compile databases, and that he did.
On those days, he did slack off a bit. He’s one of those people who really finds it hard to do data entry for eight-hours a day, but I warned him that the company would notice that he hadn’t been very productive and would probably resent him for it.
He also produced numerous reports. Some of them seemed useful, and in preparing them he learned better ways to produce reports. Sometimes he speculated that if he was receiving a salary some of the reports would be considered a waste of valuable company time. I think he also had some hidden doubts that they were just giving him the reports to keep him quiet and busy.
Still he did learn a lot about social media marketing through the reports he produced and the work it entailed. He even alerted the company to an inadvertent violation of Facebook’s Terms of Service, which could have got their page taken down. They asked him to make a report on it. He did, and they said, “so what, it’s not going to happen”. And he knew he’d made a mistake by insisting a little too strongly that there was a real risk, one that he really believed wasn’t worth running.
The colleagues were kind and friendly, clearly making an effort, and they did have some fun times together, even though he felt that his presence was a often burden to them. They even seemed to notice that he was getting psychologically worn down by the days of data entry, so they let him move on to some other tasks, such as writing content for their site.
And as the weeks passed the internship came to an end. In a lovely farewell lunch with his mentor, he slipped over his receipts for his travel cards, and asked if they wouldn’t mind reimbursing him for these expenses.
To be honest, I think he’s far too spineless and overly trusting in the good nature of people. If it were me I’d have said “And don’t forget the travel expenses you agreed to in the interview”. In fact I would have made sure I’d got something like that in writing. The damn fool.
And so it was that they didn’t reimburse him, as “it’s an unpaid internship”.
I told him it wasn’t much money in the grand scheme of things, and he wasn’t too out of pocket as, like me, he worked evenings and weekends to fund the internship. The total amount only equated to earning about £1 an hour, and put like that it seems trifling. I told him that, like me, he should view an internship as a course, and paying £35 pounds a week for a course is still good value.
He replied “but I already knew how to fill in databases, and I didn’t find out what you do with them next. To be honest I feel like a sucker, and I think they decided to withhold the money because they don’t like me, and that’s what really upsets me”. He went on to tell me that he’d initially wanted to write angry emails and blog about his bad experience, but thought that would be really arse-holeish, because his colleagues there probably meant well (apart from the tight-fistedness), and he knows that some people find him strange and unnervingly atypical, so he does have to take some responsibility for the sour outcome.
I feel really sorry for him. In his place I’d be furious. Still, he really brought it on himself for being too naive. I also think that if they did have issues with his personality or work ethic, they should have given him a brief appraisal or some feedback.
Or perhaps that’s just what most internships really are like. Perhaps the companies think that a bit of ‘work experience’ is generous enough, and don’t really consider the the value of the intern’s time, and what it’s like have a job but not an income.
He learned a valuable lesson, and so did I. I’ve been really lucky to have had two very rewarding internships, mentored by people who’ve been invested in my learning, who’ve gone out of their way to make sure I wasn’t treated like a dogsbody, and let me know that my contribution was valued. As a result, I’d wrongly assumed that all internships were worth it.
So the lesson here is that while internships really can be a valuable part of career-building, you have to choose them carefully, and never rush into one on blind faith alone.