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Lacking experience in the digital-marketing field she wanted to work in, Rachel Kong couldn't find a job after she graduated last year from York University's business marketing program.

So when Toronto-based TalentEgg, which runs an online job site for graduate students, offered an unpaid internship that would allow her to build her portfolio in digital marketing, Ms. Kong gladly accepted.

"I figured that if I wanted to work in my chosen field, I needed to gain more experience," the 23-year-old said. "And this internship was a great way to do that."

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Ms. Kong's decision paid off. Thanks in large part to her work at TalentEgg, she was able to land another internship this year -this time with pay - doing social media planning and research with Bell Canada.

"I really like the work I'm doing and the people I work with, so I hope I get hired after my internship ends," she said.

While there are no statistics showing just how many internships there are in companies across the country, human resource experts say there are thousands of opportunities to be found in a wide variety of industries.

There may be more positions available these days because of the recession, said Janice Rudkowski, marketing and communications director at Career Edge, a national, not-for-profit organization in Toronto that helps workers get paid internships.

"Overall, employers have become more receptive to internships because it is a cost-effective way to get talented workers," said Ms. Rudkowski, noting that Career Edge has filled more than 10,000 internship positions since it opened in 1996 and expects to fill about 700 this year.

Internship 101: What is it?

Ms. Rudkowski defines an internship as a "meaningful work experience related to your field, something that would help kick-start your career." For young workers like Ms. Kong, who often graduate from school with little or no work experience, an internship provides the beginnings of a résumé, along with an employment reference from a supervisor at the sponsor company.

In some colleges and universities, internships are part of the program curriculum and the schools help students find such positions, also commonly referred to as co-op placements.

Internships aren't only for new graduates; there are also internship programs for recent immigrants who want to gain Canadian experience in the profession they worked in before moving.

While internships may vary from one company to the next, Ms. Rudkowski said they should all offer job training, preferably by a mentor who can work closely with the intern, and opportunities for professional networking.

"Interns should be able to grow as a result of the people they've met during their internship," she said. "And ideally, in the end they should be able to include an accomplishment - like a project they completed - in their résumé."

A talent pipeline

Ms. Rudkowski said many companies use interns to fill temporary positions that open up when a permanent employee goes on a leave or a holiday, or when extra help is needed on a one-off project.

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But many businesses consider internships an important part of a larger plan to attract and keep talented workers. At General Electric Canada in Toronto, for example, about 40 per cent of entry-level employees hired in recent years started out as interns, said Terry Peach, the company's manager of organization and staffing.

"For us, internships are a rich pipeline of talent," he said. "We get people just as they are starting out in their careers, get to see how they perform and give them a chance to get to know us before we make a commitment to each other."

GE Canada welcomes about 200 interns each year, and keeps them on for about six months to 16 months. "It's like a long job interview," Mr. Peach said. "By the time the internship is over, we know which ones are stars."

There have been several stellar interns over the years, he added, such as the one who ended up running the company's maintenance department a mere four months into her internship. "The maintenance manager became ill so they gave the job to the intern because it was clear that she was very capable."

A career catalyst

While internships are a good way for workers to gain experience in their field of interest, it can also help them decide what they don't want to do. For example, before accepting an internship with TalentEgg, Ms. Kong had interned briefly with a small ad agency in Toronto: "I thought at the time that I might want to get into advertising, but after working at the agency, I realized that I was more interested in marketing."

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In the case of Dave Wilkin, a co-op placement two years ago with an oil and gas company led him on an unexpected career path. Mr. Wilkin, who interned as part of his biochemistry studies at University of Waterloo in Ontario, was asked by the energy company to help create a brand that would attract young people.

Mr. Wilkin later took what he learned as intern and applied it to another project - starting his own company. Today, he is president of Toronto-based Redwood Strategic Inc., which helps companies market their products to young people through CampusPerks, an online community of student leaders.

"As an intern, you have so many opportunities to develop great ideas," he said. "I was lucky to have been able to parlay some of those great ideas I came up with during my internship into this whole new venture."

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PAID OR UNPAID?

In popular industries such as advertising, marketing, publishing and television, many companies do not pay interns but have no problem finding people willing to do the work for free.

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"I'm of two minds about this," said Lauren Friese, founder of TalentEgg, whose services include finding internships - both paid and unpaid - for new graduates.

"If a company could afford to create an internship, or if the internship was taking the place of a job they would have hired someone for anyway, then the fair thing to do would be to pay," she said. "But when a company takes on an intern for a role that isn't really core to its business, then they may in fact be making extra work for themselves because now they have to assign someone to train and supervise the intern."

For companies in the latter group, the costs could outweigh the benefits, so paying an intern does not make business sense, Ms. Friese said. On the other hand, accepting an unpaid internship may be good career move if you're just starting out.

Before accepting an unpaid internship, it's important to make clear what you want to get out of the arrangement, and to set firm boundaries and exit dates, she said. "Make sure that what is being offered is in line with your career goals and that you won't just be put in a corner and asked to do filing all day," Ms. Friese advised.

"You also have to ask yourself: Are you going to be motivated by a job that doesn't pay, or will you end up feeling resentful and not performing at your best?"

Janice Rudkowski, of Toronto-based Career Edge Organization, frowns on companies that don't pay their interns. "We don't support unpaid internships," she said. "Often, it's the more vulnerable people who accept unpaid internships, and before they know it, the one-month internship turns into six months and they're still unemployed."

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How much should employers pay their interns?

Ms. Rudkowski recommends a minimum stipend of $22,000 for a recent graduate doing a 12-month internship; a foreign-trained professional should get at least $26,000. "Some of our clients actually pay more, either by topping up the salary or by offering a mid- or end-of-term bonus based on performance," she noted.

General Electric Canada, which works with both Career Edge and TalentEgg, pays its interns about $20,000 a year, according to company staffing manager Terry Peach.

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TIPS FOR NEW INTERNS

Know in advance what you want to learn during an internship. Then go and learn it. Ask plenty of questions and, if possible, take on projects that focus on your interests.

Go the extra mile. Internships often lead to a job offer, so showing you're a hard worker with initiative can work in your favour should a job become available.

Keep your options open. An internship is also an opportunity to assess your career choice. So keep an open mind; who knows where an internship can take you?

Ask for money. If you're considering an unpaid internship, then ask your prospective employer to at least cover your transportation costs.

Network. As an intern, you become connected to a network of people in your chosen industry. Be sure to put your best foot forward, attend as many industry events as you can, and stay in touch with your new-found connections even after your internship ends.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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