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Why unpaid internships are underrated

Rob Enderle | July 4, 2016
Columnist Rob Enderle writes that experience matters, so taking that low or no-pay internship now can pay off big time in the long run.

The point overall, this is experience and it counts so that you aren’t treading water or having to explain why the job you held has nothing to do with your degree when you apply. Also, realize your education times out. After 2 or 3 years without a relevant job your job history easily trumps it and while a degree is better than none the value of that degree can drop like a rock if you don’t get hired. Hiring managers just figure there was something wrong with you.  

Startups vs. established firms

One of the advantages to a startup is that they tend to give away stock options to folks that join early and this can pay off hugely if the firm goes public. However, this last step isn’t a given and a lot of the folks I’ve known who worked for a startup for free ended up unemployed.

Even so, the experience can be really valuable and certainly better than nothing.   An established company is more likely to be able to hire you and will teach rigor and process, things you may not learn from a startup, and it is often easier to go to a startup, and get paid, if you started with an established company than the other way around.  

There is a third choice now and that is founding your own startup. This isn’t trivial, but there are a surprising number of folks that have found their way to fame and fortune by taking something they love and turning it into a business.   This takes a ton of self-motivation, drive and at least some core competence in managing a team and it does look good on a resume as long as this experience doesn’t come with a lack of humility if you eventually have to work for someone else.  

Sometimes folks that were vice presidents in a five-person company think they are equivalent to a VP in far larger firm and they tend to get set straight very painfully.   One thing a startup doesn’t teach is internal politics and that can be an expensive lesson to learn on the job for someone with ego issues.  

I’ve done startups and established firms and neither turned out to be significantly more secure than the other and I’ve had fun doing both so a lot has to do with your attitude as well.   If you buckle down and do the best job you can regardless of the firm size, good things tend to happen.

Internships can teach strategic thinking

One final part about an internship is that it tends to force you to think strategically. Most folks have no idea what “strategic” thinking is and live from paycheck to paycheck all their lives waiting to retire only to find that retirement sucks and they should have saved more over the years.   An internship forces you to play the long game and if you equate that into your career planning you’ll choose jobs that lead you to more interesting jobs and you are more likely to realize that retirement isn’t a goal it is a problem to be solved.  


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