Put Down The Internship Haterade.
Young people are dealing with some serious shit here. These companies will let you in, but they don't want to pay you if you're learning something -- the experience IS your pay. But your summer sublet landlord in NYC unfortunately can't be paid with your experience. And if you're paid, there's a chance you'll end up a glorified admin assistant with no experience at the end of the summer.
As a former intern myself, I have to say, it is what you make of it. You can get experience, pay, or a big boost for your resume. Sometimes you get more than one. I had paid and unpaid internships, and luckily I learned plenty at both, and ended up turning one into a full-time position before the summer ended. But they were both work.
So, before you jump in, know what you want:
The "I'm doing it for the name" internship. You know it, they know it. You want to have that company logo on your resume. They've got people lined up out the door willing to sweep the floors. This is how big companies get away with almost slave labor under the guise of an internship.
Sure, you'll be assigned to someone. And you'll get to sit in on meetings. The idea here is to bank on that big name when you apply for a real job. But if you didn't learn anything, it's only worth the paper your resume is printed on. In these situations, anything you actually learn will likely be by accident, when you're not fetching coffee or cleaning SmartBoards. Or, only because you're proactive enough to FIND some actual experience. And pay? They'll just laugh in your face. So unless you're living off a trust fund, this can be a waste of time.
Then there's the "I'm doing it for the experience" internship. This, in my opinion, is the classic internship. You may not be working for a big name, but you'll be learning a lot. These are sometimes at companies who can't afford a junior-level employee but need help with their deliverables. Or, at a company with a dedicated program to ensure that you learn something, hands-on. You'll pick up skills, experience your chosen career in real time, and may even get credit for it, so hey, a couple less classes to take, right?
You may even get paid, especially if you're "working" 40 hours a week. It may not be much, but it may keep you from having to run off to another job at TGI Friday's at the end of your workday.
And yeah. That's the issue with the unpaid internship. You're basically doing one job for experience and a separate job for money, which can cause many kids to just go for the money. That brings us to...
... The "I'm doing it for the money" internship. Yep. Let's just call a spade a spade. Since well-paid internships are rare, this is basically a summer job. And if you're really lucky, it may be have something to do with your chosen field. That's that.
These different internship types can blend into each other, too -- but at the end of the day, you've got to know what you want beforehand and what you're dealing with, wayyyyy back at the interview stage.
Good or bad, the experience of an internship can shape a career. And even with the potential downsides, everyone can win. As a company you get cheap (or free) help for nothing more than letting a kid learn from you. For the students, you get to try on a career for a few months and gain, at the very least, straight-up workplace experience, even if it's not directly related to your field.
But again, do your homework: many of the people calling internships useless didn't vet them before they jumped in, and paid the price of a lost summer - or worse -- a lost opportunity.
© 2014, Kwame DeRoché