Andrea Alexis-James did a four-month unpaid internship at a media service company to meet requirements for her degree in creative advertising from Toronto's Seneca College.
The job involved a lot of repetitive tasks, "which is what I was told would be expected of me at an entry level," she recalled. "But I got a lot of benefit because it gave me practical experience, which I thought would lead to a full-time paying job."
Things didn't work out that smoothly. At the end of her internship in 2009, the company was downsizing, not hiring.
After several months of fruitless job hunting, she found another media company that would take her on as an unpaid, part-time intern in sales. "That helped me decide I definitely did not want to do sales."
When that internship ended, she found a third media-sector internship – again unpaid – which forced her to take a second temporary job to make some income.
Ms. Alexis-James's experiences aren't unusual for newcomers to the labour force. Doing multiple, frequently unpaid internships, has become an increasingly common rite of passage for recent graduates trying to break into a career.
Continued economic uncertainty has forced nearly three-quarters of young people moving into the work force to make compromises, including accepting unpaid internships, to get work, according to a international study of workers born between 1980 and 2000 by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.
Competition for jobs when the unemployment rate is high has also given employers the luxury of being more selective in new hirings. Many companies, in a range of sectors, expect internships as tryouts or prerequisites to applying for a permanent job.
"Employers increasingly expect people have work experience before giving them a full-time job," said Lauren Friese, founder of employment counselling service TalentEgg Inc. in Toronto. "Every major employer in Canada seems to have an internship program or is in the process of creating one."
At the same time, there is an expectation among many employers that the jobs are unpaid. "There are many more employers starting internship or co-op programs than there were four years ago," Ms. Friese added, though she had no exact numbers because unpaid internships are not reported in labour surveys.
"The upside is that internships and co-op experiences are considered big plusses by employers," said Jackie Chua, general manager of the Bagg Group staffing service in Toronto.
"Candidates come across as more mature and job-ready when they have business experience under their belt. They present themselves better and provide more relevant examples during interviews, having garnered real experience to draw upon," she explained.
Ms. Chua said the employees she has hired at her company began as interns. "Engagement is the key thing I look for. We're impressed by interns who demonstrate interest in the role and the company, ask questions, and take notes," she said. "Interns should go in with the mind set that this could lead to a potential full time job."
Interns who will be offered a contract or a full-time role are those who go the extra mile, agreed Joanne Boucher, general manager for Bagg's technology resources department. "Demonstrate that you are there to add value to the organization and can be a source of new ideas," she suggested.
Even if the internship experience doesn't lead to being hired, the employer invariably will be willing to provide an excellent reference and potential referrals to other companies that may be hiring.
Many young interns don't work hard enough to market themselves and find the hidden opportunities to stay with the company, said Ron McGowan, principal of How to Find Work Coaching Services in Vancouver
"Tracking down unseen job opportunities has become essential, because the vast majority of jobs today are not advertised," Mr. McGowan noted.
"Interns are often reluctant just to ask if there are opportunities," he said. "Executives have even expressed their surprise to me that interns don't show the spunk to ask. It's important to let it be known that you're looking for the opportunity to take on a bigger challenge."
Executives are often impressed if an intern asks for help either in finding a regular role at the company, or assistance with networking to find an opportunity elsewhere, Mr. McGowan said.
The key is for the intern to make active contributions while on the job, to prove that he or she adds value to the company, he cautioned: "If you're only in it for self-promotion you're not going to get the help you need."
The good news is that most young workers find that an internship gets them started in the right direction. According to a new survey of 1,100 Canadian interns between the ages of 18 and 29, by the not-for-profit Career Edge Organization, 65 per cent said they were in an internship that aligned with their eventual desired career path.
Thanks to her varied internship experiences, Ms. Alexis-James was well-armed when she applied for a job posted by online deals website WagJag.com last spring.
"Because of the internships, the interviewers were impressed by how much I knew about the industry and how much experience I had on my résumé, and they offered me the job," she said.
She is now the operations co-ordinator at Toronto-based WagJag, working with sales representatives who sell the deals, updating the website and overseeing the buying and payment processes.
"The internships definitely helped me clarify what I didn't want to do, and they gave me insight into what I could look forward to doing once I got a permanent role," Ms. Alexis-James said.
But if she had to do it over, she said she would have preferred to do fewer internships and stay at one for a longer period. "And it would have been better if I wasn't worried all the time about how I was going to pay my bills."
Tips to land that job offer
What to do to turn an internship into a position
Play to your strengths
Take only internships that will allow you demonstrate your skills.
Ask for advice and coaching from your manager and co-workers; you will learn more quickly how to meet and exceed expectations.
Learn the ropes
Before suggesting changes to existing processes, learn what, how and why things are done the way they are. Once you are proficient, make suggestions for improvements.
Ask yourself "What do they expect of me?" and then deliver on those expectations.
Dress the part
Speak, dress and behave as if you already have a full-time position in the company..
Pitch your interest
Make sure your manager knows you would like to be considered for full-time, or even contract, positions.
Seek role models
Ask others who have gone through the internship program how they succeeded in landing a full-time job.
At the end of the internship, formally thank your manager and colleagues – this goes a long way in building a relationship.
Stay in touch with your manager, co-workers and the company's HR team to learn about employment opportunities as soon as possible.
Source: n-gen People Performance Inc.
The pay packet
Unpaid internships are the norm in many companies, though there are signs employers are changing
Although unpaid internships are the norm in many companies and industries, there are signs the salary crunch may be easing. A new study of 280 U.S. organizations by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that companies plan to hire 8 per cent more interns this year than last – and nearly all said they plan to pay them.
Such findings are causing an increasing number of interns to question unpaid assignments, said Lauren Friese, founder of career website TalentEgg.ca.
Although statistics on Canadian internships are not available, "I hear anecdotally that there are many students who are putting their foot down and saying, 'I'm not doing unpaid internships any more,'" she said.
In the wake of the recession, employers argued that unpaid internships were a necessity, but with the North American economy starting to pick up, employers have less excuse not to pay, Ms. Friese said.
Still, she advises potential interns not to reject an offer of an unpaid position out of hand. Instead, they should examine what kind of skills training and experience the job would provide, and how it might them get established in a career.
And if the decision is made to take an unpaid internship, she offers some practical advice. "You should establish guidelines from the beginning about how long you'll work, that you will be able to work with a manager or mentor who can advise you, and that you will get a reference and referrals at the end," she said.
"As long as the company is providing a valuable learning experience, the internship can be a fair trade."