by Leon Rosenshein

Just No

Intern/work-study is a hard gig. You're dropped into a company, given a few days intro, a mentor and then expected to produce something in a few weeks/months. It can be stressful, and done right the intern learns/grows a lot. I think it's the reason that graduates from Waterloo often do so well.

Years ago I had a discussion with the director of the engineering placement office at a school I was visiting for campus interviews. We were discussing the differences between an intern interview and an FTE interview. We talked about how an internship is in some ways a really long interview. There's no long-term commitment by the company so you can take more of a chance on the candidate. On the other hand, a good internship produces something useful and takes the mentor's time away from their day job. By the time the discussion was over I had just about convinced myself that intern interviews had a higher bar than FTE interviews.

That's not strictly true, but think about it. A campus FTE hire is expected to take a while to come up to speed. Months to be fully on-boarded and fully adding value wouldn't be out of the question, and any FTE hire is a multi-year investment. An intern, on the other hand, is expected to produce something meaningful in 6 to 12 weeks, and while we all want things to work out, there's no commitment beyond that. If nothing else, taking on a non-traditional candidate (someone with little/no coding experience) because you've identified that spark doesn't make much sense if the candidate is going to spend their internship learning to code, but it might be OK for an FTE. I've hired those candidates as FTEs and it's worked out well, but would have been a disaster as an intern.

I say all that as context and to say that I think internships are great for both the employer and the intern. I think everyone should do one. I said that to my kids and they did internships before they graduated and entered the workforce full time. But I also told them that they should do paid internships. If you're not getting paid it's not an internship, it's volunteer work. I also think volunteering is a good thing and my kids did that as well, but don't let anyone tell you the two are the same thing.

Which brings me to my rant. There are some industries, such as the creatives (Hollywood, fashion, music, marketing), law, healthcare, and non-profits, that have traditionally offered unpaid internships. As much as I think that's a bad idea, and potentially illegal, people should at least expect it going in. Engineering, on the other hand, traditionally doesn't do that. And I don't think we should start.

Apparently others think it's a good idea. Places like LambdaSchool, which as near as I can tell, not only gives out its students for a 4 week free trial, but does it as part of the program, so the students are not working for free, they're paying to be sent out as free labor.

And that's just wrong.