Is the Unpaid Internship for Everyone?

Most companies do have jobs available. They don’t say it, or even admit it.

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GL Hoffman
Could unpaid internships be right for everyone? Maybe. Let’s review the options: You have been searching for a new job for some time now. No one seems to be hiring and the process is frustrating because you know you can help some companies. But why should you give work away for free--especially when there’s no guarantee that you can work your way into a job?

[See 15 essential tips for job success.]

Does taking an unpaid internship, one that takes you away from your real job--your job search--make sense? Here’s why it just might.

The dirty little secret inside most companies is that they are pretty good at removing employees, but lousy at removing or reassigning the work that those departed employees did, however poorly or inefficiently.

[See how to turn a job application into an interview.]

Therefore, there is a lot of work left undone. Some of it is unnecessary “make-work.” (Some entire jobs are like that, and this dead-end stuff is slowly seeing the light of day, and removed. All good. Eventually.) But you need a job now. Most companies do have jobs available. They don’t say it, or even admit it. Many times the kind people in HR don’t even know it. But there are jobs.

Some are able to be dug out through research. Think job search engines. Don’t think jobs. Think work. What work needs to be done, that you can do? And, obviously, for what company? You must absolutely get comfortable with searching through the job search engines to find those companies' Web sites. You can learn a lot by studying the Web site of any company. Yep, it takes time, but it is time well spent.

[See how job seekers spend their time.]

Now, let's talk about what to look for. What kind of issues or problems are they facing? Are you good enough to connect the dots and figure that out? What industry are they in? Are they a leader or are they a laggard? What are customers saying about this company? What hints can you garner from this that may tell you what is needed? Who are the people that seem to making good things happen? What can you learn about them? Is this the kind of company that you want to be associated with? What is the culture like? All of these questions and many more can be found out by examining and studying a company’s own Web site and brand. And yes, it takes effort. Oprah can wait.

Once you figure out what they need and if your skills might fit, you need to make some contacts. Don’t call it an "unpaid internship," instead call it an "unpaid, low-risk, prove-it-ship." In other words, you will work for free on a project--maybe one that you have identified for them. Then you bust your hump and make yourself so critical, so important, that they simply cannot do without you.

Some issues with this approach, I know, I know. For one thing, the laws regarding unpaid internships are strict, but proving oneself is one of the keys to today's job hunt and/or offer. Unpaid work is one way to prove your worth.

So, do you set a time limit? Again, it depends. Even though they know you are looking and wanting a full-time gig, try not to hold it over their heads. And give them absolutely no reason to question your abilities or habits. Arrive early, exhibit great workplace manners and skill. Under-promise and over-deliver.

And try not to badger the boss into hiring you. This is a delicate balance. They know they are getting a good deal. There is no need to guilt them into some kind of offer. If you are delivering great work, they will not want to lose it. They will make a job for you.

Unlike countless others who are outside the gates wondering how to get in, you got in--and now you have only to show how good you are.

G. L. Hoffman is a serial entrepreneur and venture investor/operator/incubator/mentor. Two of his companies have traveled the entire success path from the garage to IPO. Currently, he is chairman of JobDig, which operates LinkUp, one of the fastest-growing job search engines. His blog can be found at WhatWouldDadSay.com.