teen boy depressed about working in a fast food restaurantI recently met a young woman who is trying to break into the PR field. Not having any background in PR, she looked up local PR firms, contacted each one and finally landed an “internship.” I use the word internship lightly.

For the past 6 weeks this woman has done some work, but nothing substantial. The firm is small with just a few employees, the majority of whom work remotely.

This woman drives 45 minutes three days a week for her so-called “internship.” Most of the time when she arrives, her boss (the head of the firm) is not even there. And some days her boss fails to show up, leaving the woman with no work to do.

Now, she desperately wants to break into the PR field and truly believes in the potential of the company she’s interning with. She admitted to me that it could be more organized. And I admitted to her that that’s not the only thing this firm is lacking.

We’re constantly receiving advice on when to jump ship in our 9-5pm jobs, but what about students and internships? Or not even students, but those who have taken on a supposed internship with a company hoping to break into a field? Why don’t we offer these types of people the latest tips and tricks on how to spot the it’s-just-not-working-out signs? Well, I’m here to put an end to all of that.

Nearly half of college graduates are underemployed and 6.3 percent of 2012 graduates are unemployed. What’s worse is that studies show that businesses only plan to hire 2.1 percent more college graduates from the class of 2013 than they did from the class of 2012.

Getting the required skills necessary to obtain full-time employment (and in your degree field) is not something to be taken lightly. And internships are one of the best ways to learn those skills. College students and the inexperienced workers looking switch fields do not have time to work at just any internship—they need to actually benefit from these positions.

So, below are six red flags of a faulty internship. Ladies and gentleman, students and inexperienced trying-to-my-foot-in-the-door-workers: If you are looking for an internship, be aware of these signs that may show it won’t end up being in your best interest. And if you’re currently working at an internship, measure its features by this list to determine whether or not you need to jump ship:

1. No Contract

This is very important. Just as new employees have to sign all the important documents when hired by a company, so should interns sign the correct papers for an internship. You know the saying, “Get it in writing.” Why? Because writing makes it official.

Make sure you have a copy for your records that 1) explains the duration of the internship 2) your duties 3) compensation (if any) and 4) any causes for termination. This helps bring the formality into the internship process.

Why is it okay for the young woman’s boss to show up late or not at all? Because they never made a binding agreement for her internship. It was only “talked about.” Having written documents helps set things in stone.

2. Getting food/running personal errands

As an intern you are not your boss’s personal assistant; I don’t care what you see in the movies. Being at your boss’s beck and call, buying his/her lunch and running the person’s personal errands is not your job. Your job as an intern is to contribute to the company while gaining knowledge and insight to help you in your chosen career field.

I had the opportunity to work at 7 different internships while in college and not once did my managers ever ask me to buy them lunch. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you picking your boss up a Starbucks latte or sandwich from the nearby deli if he or she is super busy and asks; or if you’re already out and your manager requests this. But, this should not be a regular thing or something that is expected of you.

3. Doing “busy work”

Sure, interns are there to “pick up the slack,” in a sense, and help with the important tasks other employees just don’t have time to fulfill. I understand that, but, just like being the “coffee boy/girl” this shouldn’t be a regular occurrence. The work you do at an internship needs to benefit your future career. If what you’re doing is in no way connected to your major or career aspirations, talk to your manager about it. If he or she still gives you busy work, it’s time to move on.

*I understand that most people, especially students, would not want to leave an internship before the required end date. But, remember you having the necessary skills to get a job post-graduate is crucial. You do not have time to waste doing something that isn’t benefiting your career. If you decide to leave an internship early you can 1) leave it off your resume (especially if you were only there for a short period of time) or 2) explain how the internship didn’t help you excel during your next interview.

4. Not doing enough work

This is similar to point no.3. Again, an internship should offer you real-world experience. It should challenge you. If you find yourself sitting idle, ask your manager for more tasks. Doing nothing (even if you’re getting paid) will not help your future because you’ll be missing out on the opportunity to acquire important skills.

5. Manager isn’t interested in career growth

The main thing I appreciate from each of my internships (and what benefited me the most) was the fact that each of my managers were invested in my career growth. Every single one of them set out to make sure I took away all the necessities as I worked. They constantly asked for my ideas and feedback and monitored my strengths and weaknesses throughout the internships. The acted as mentors, always looking out for my best interest.

Interns need managers who not only care about what they can do for the company, but what the company and experience interning there can do for the interns’ careers.

6. Unorganized/no structure

A unorganized internship program is a definite red flag. Just like you wouldn’t want to work for a company that lacks structure in its different processes, you should avoid the same thing when interning.



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