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The Trouble With Internships: Lack of Mentorship, Not Pay

Last Updated Jun 14, 2011 10:14 AM EDT

With summer upon us, the internship season is in full swing and across the country eager young people (and a few older career changers) are busily filing, fetching coffee and occasionally doing substantive work. Around these interns swirls the usual controversy and outrage.

Are enough of them being paid? Does the explosion in unpaid internships represent "slavery" for young people or an unfair advantage for those with more financial support from their parents? We've debated these points previously on BNET, but they're entirely the wrong questions, according to a new e-book on internships.

In Lies, Damned Lies & Internships: The Truth About Getting from Classroom to Cubicle Heather R. Huhman argues that the real trouble with internships isn't lack of pay, it's lack of mentorship. Speaking to Entry-Level Rebel, she declares herself "angry about the state of internships today," explaining:
The issue that most people get angry about is paid versus non-paid and that's the wrong issue to be getting upset about. Internships are not jobs. They are not meant to be jobs. They are meant to be educational, mentor-based experiences. If you don't have the educational component, it you don't have the mentor component, to me it doesn't matter if you're getting paid a million dollars a second, it's not an internship and you're not going to benefit from it in the long run.
In this climate where internships are often not living up to their billing as educational experiences, Huhman recommends young people take a tough stance on selecting and participating in internships. First, she insists potential interns should "evaluate the opportunity before you accept it" and suggests possible questions to ask when gathering information on and interviewing for internships, including:
  • What role will I play in the overall organization?
  • Who will be my mentor and how will that process work?
  • Will there be any professional development opportunities in this internship?
According to Huhman, a young person's responsibility for the quality of their internship doesn't end when they've signed on, they need to remain vigilant to ensure they actually learn something from the experience:
Speak up. Interns should feel more empowered than they do. I know interns feel that they're the lowest rung that there is at the company, but they should speak up because an internship is a two-sided agreement, at least when done properly. So if they're feeling they're not getting an adequate experience, they should come up with suggestions. Never approach your supervisor with a problem and no solution -- 'I'd love to take part in this project' or 'I'd really like to learn more about this.'
And if the internship doesn't improve even after interventions by the frustrated intern, Huhman has a fairly radical solution -- quit. "Once they do everything they can in terms of trying to make the situation better, if they're not being heard, I honestly think they should walk away. And I think a company shouldn't be so shocked that they've walked away from the internship after trying to make it better."

Do you agree with Huhman's focus on mentoring and tough stance on internships that don't deliver?

Read More on BNET: (Image courtesy of Flickr user lululemon athletica, CC 2.0)
  • Jessica Stillman On Twitter»

    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.