March 10, 2010 -- In a competitive job market, you need every edge when applying for jobs, and nothing trumps actual experience. One way to get it is through interning, even as an adult.
When giving your time and talent for free, you want to make sure you're getting something in return. That means interning only in a capacity that's directly related to your desired paid position. It's what differentiates this from volunteering and doing good for your heart. As an adult intern, you're working with an eye on the prize: a paid job.
The biggest hurdle: most employers will demand that interns receive college credit in lieu of salary or pay. To get around that, make your case to small and medium sized businesses, professional associations, and even non-profits. Your pitch must be personal: "I'm out of work and I'm convinced that if I had this specific experience, I'd be able to get hired. So allow me to give you my time and talent in exchange for gaining this particular skill to put on my resume." If it's clear that you're benefitting more than the employer—and that they're helping you by allowing you to intern—compensation is no longer an issue.
Click HERE for an example of an internship pitch letter.
There are three main reasons for a jobseeker to pursue an internship:
1: Test drive a job before committing time and money to formal education or training.
Margie Lyons, 56, is a mom of three grown daughters who has always worked in the insurance industry, which has served her very well. But with the kids out of the house, she's considering adding an act two to her plate, ideally tied to her passion. Since she's always been interested in the culinary arts, Lyons researched the French Culinary Institute but recognized it was a substantial commitment of time and money for a potential career path she wasn't sold on.
Before diving in to formal training and education, she wanted to "test drive" the profession. She approached the owner of Plates, a restaurant in New York, to ask if she could intern in the kitchen one night a week.
Insurance Industry Employee Gets Experience in the Kitchen
She's getting very hands-on experience – from preparing dessert for a party of 50 to learning how to tie sausages. Lyons says the owner understood immediately that you can't get hired without experience, but you can't get that experience unless someone hires you, so he's happy to give her that shot. In the end, she gets more out of it than the restaurant does because the hands-on exposure is invaluable before deciding to enroll in school.
Before you think about enrolling and making that commitment of time and money, test drive your desired field by approaching a business for an internship.
2: Fill a gap on a resume and keep busy while job searching.
In New Hampshire, Jessica Hayes, 36, has been a stay at home mom with three kids and without a paycheck for seven years. Prior to starting a family, she worked in client services for a high tech company. Now she's looking to build on that experience, but she has to freshen up her skills, especially those in social media.
She applied for an internship at an employment consulting company where she is able to work on social media outreach. When she left the workforce, nobody was talking about blogging, Facebook and Twitter, but today without that experience, she isn't being considered for new jobs.
It's also a plus when networking and interviewing to point to what she's doing right now so she doesn't have the burden of explaining that as a mom she's an expert in conflict resolution and management household finances, which are important, but not as impressive as on the job experience in her desired field. Hayes says her current internship is received better by prospective employers than her volunteer PTA work because it's directly related to her career goal.
3: Gain a specific new skill that's needed to land a targeted job
Joseph Connolly, 34, worked in information technology and was downsized in June 2009 when the company sold his division. He went to a job search seminar hosted by a technical staffing firm that had just started an intern co-op to help people just like him.
Employers Find Man's Non-Profit Experience Appealing
Connolly wanted to get into project management because he thought it would make him more desirable to employers, but that's not where his prior experience was. So he secured an internship as a project manager with a non-profit. Now he's very optimistic because he sees a slow rise in hiring and he has something more than just IT experience to offer. He has the one-two punch of IT and project management experience, which he says employers are finding much more appealing.
Most empowering to him, he says, is the reaction he gets from hiring managers when he answers the question, "What have you been doing since you lost your job?" He says there's a "visible positive reaction" -- one that most jobseekers unfortunately don't get -- because he actually has something valuable to share about what he's doing right now.