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How to turn an unpaid internship into a paid job

arnk543612d6xj6xvj2vIt’s estimated that 100,000 young people are currently working as unpaid interns in the UK. While every one of them will be hoping to gain valuable experience, not everyone will be lucky enough to land a paid position at the end.

Campaigners warn that companies are using internships to replace permanent roles, pointing out that placements are getting longer with less chance of paid work at the end, while 26 per cent of interns have done three or more placements – and still don’t have a job.

While some paid internships can offer valuable experience and improve your employment prospects, unpaid internships remain highly controversial. If you’re one of the many thousands of young people planning to work as an intern (preferably paid) here are our top tips for turning work experience into a job that pays.

Make a good impression

Think of your internship as an extended interview and probation period, advises David Shindler, performance coach and author of Learning To Leap.

‘It’s a two-way “try before you buy” situation. If you sense early on that this is the place for you, tell your boss up-front. Don’t wait until the end of the placement – that way they’ll look at whether you’re right for them more consciously during the internship.’

As you’re only working at the company for a short time, it’s vital to make a good impression.

‘Act like you are already an employee, which means dropping the “I’m just the intern” attitude. Be proactive. If you don’t know the answer to something, find out. Don’t ask your manager about computer issues if you can call IT support direct.

‘Likewise, offer to do things that would take the burden off others or wouldn’t get done otherwise: improve a spreadsheet or sort out the filing cabinet, for example.’

That does not mean you should seek out or be happy to fill your time with admin tasks. You are offering your hard work in exchange for the opportunity to develop new skills so don’t stay with the safe jobs – volunteer to do things that are more challenging too.

‘You might not always do brilliantly, few people do the first time they attempt something new, but don’t be afraid to have a go. People often judge you on how you react to setbacks as much as successes – if it goes wrong, be professional and stay positive,’ advises David.

Make sure your face fits

It’s a well known fact that hiring managers employ people who they think will complement the existing team. An internship gives you both the chance to see if you ‘fit’ – so don’t forget to be personable, as well as proving you have skills to do the job.

Dress in a similar way (business suits or more relaxed), learn names and be friendly to everyone, including the receptionist, and join in with social activities to build relationships.

Line up an alternative

Many interns make the mistake of not having an end date according to Tanya de Grunwald, founder of the graduate careers advice blog Graduate Fog and author ofHow to Get a Graduate Job in a Recession.

‘Think of an internship as a short-term contract, not an ongoing job. Interns who don’t do this can find themselves hanging around endlessly, keeping their fingers crossed their boss will one day offer them some money.

‘They might – but it’s more likely they won’t. Having an end date keeps the relationship professional and gives you some control.’

According to Tanya, the longest you should stay in any one place is three months. Any more than that and you risk undervaluing your own worth.

‘Always assume you will be leaving on the last day of your internship. Apply for as many jobs as you can and line up something else to go to, even if it’s another unpaid internship. This will give you some bargaining power if your current employer wants to keep you on.’

Secure a good recommendation

Before your internship ends, arrange a meeting with your manager.

Tanya suggests keeping it light and friendly. ‘Say that you’ve had a brilliant time and learned loads, but that you’ll need to move on as you need to find some paid work.’

‘Ask them for a reference and to keep you in mind if any paid positions come up. If they want to keep you, this is when they will ask,’ says Tanya. ‘If they mutter something about not being able pay you for a few months, say you’d love to stay but would need to be paid.’

David also suggests asking for a testimonial. ‘Ask your manager to write a recommendation on your LinkedIn profile before you leave, while you’re fresh in their mind. Use the site to keep an eye on peoples’ careers – you never know when they may be in a hiring position.’

Be prepared to walk away

Perhaps the company genuinely doesn’t have the budget to hire you right now – but that doesn’t mean others won’t.

‘Often, having the courage to walk away is the best thing an intern can do.’

Tanya says: ‘By moving on, you’re expanding your network further. And if the old place wants you back, they will contact you. Give them the chance to miss you and realise what an asset you were. You may well get a call in a month’s time asking you to return. And guess what? They’ve found some money to pay you too.”

Book Links:
Learning to Leap: A guide to being more employable by David Shindler

How to Get a Graduate Job in a Recession by Tanya de Grunwald

Image: © nruboc –


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