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The Question:

Do you see value in taking unpaid internships? Would you recommend that students who are having a hard time getting a job in their field take on relevant unpaid internships? Or is that just a way to sell yourself (and your pocketbook) short?

The Answer:

Unpaid internships can be worthwhile if both the company and the intern use the opportunity in the right way. The intern can benefit from networking opportunities, listing real world experience on his or her résumé, and gaining valuable on-the-job training. The company can benefit by having a new person share fresh perspectives on the business, having additional hands-on support, and giving back to the community by investing in new talent.

The challenge with unpaid internships however, is that some companies take advantage of this set up to gain free administrative labour, rather than offering a valuable on-the-job training opportunity for new workers. Unfortunately, I have met too many individuals who take on long-term unpaid internships during the day, where they are not gaining valuable career experiences. Consequently, they take on non-career related jobs after work in order to pay their bills. Technically, this arrangement doesn't fit into the proper definition of an intern, but aspiring job seekers often feel they have no other choice.

The good news is, when it comes to unpaid internships, while many job seekers don't realize it, they can exercise some level of control in the arrangement.

In a paid internship position, you'll likely be given a job description, be considered an employee, and if that means you have to fetch coffee, file and photocopy papers on a regular basis, so be it, it's all part of the intern-level job. In an unpaid internship however, you don't have the same obligations to a company, so you can set some of your own parameters to negotiate the type of training you want to get. If your target company doesn't agree to your recommendations, you can decide to turn down the opportunity and look for something else.

Some companies will offer unpaid internships, but they'll cover public transit costs or offer a per diem for lunch, so do your research to find out what norms exist in your industry. Armed with that information, you'll be able to negotiate a better opportunity for yourself.

Here are some of the most important things to ask yourself as you're looking for an interning position:

- Can you define what you want to get from the position?

- Do you want a blue chip company's name on your résumé?

- Do you want to network with leaders in your industry? Or do you want hands-on experience within a smaller organization?

Such questions will help you determine whether a paid or unpaid internship is right for you.

Julie Labrie is the vice-president of BlueSky Personnel Solutions in Toronto.

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