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Rise Birnbaum

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Earning Your Stripes: Internships & Business

Posted: 06/29/11 02:00 PM ET

With the job market really dry out there for newly-minted college grads, what's a kid to do?

Many have flown back to the nest, bunking in their old room, withdrawing cash from the Bank of Mom & Dad 'til the market heats up. And others have opted to intern, even if it means no pay, so they can beef up their resume, network and maybe even turn their internship into a full-time job with paycheck and health benefits. Wouldn't that be nice?

My first job out of grad school was as a reporter for a Miami radio station. It took me 13 months of hunting from my old room in a New Jersey 'burb to land the job. Every day I batted out about 50 letters and resumes on my IBM Selectric to any radio station with a signal. And every night I Scotch-taped a new batch of rejection letters to my wall that helped refine my dart game.

Finally I landed a job with the top all-news station in a top market. And, in some ways, it was like an internship. My starting pay in 1977 was $9,000 a year, no benefits, no bonus and I worked holidays. But, I was thrilled to be working and soaked up every word my news director barked at me so I could be the best reporter in the country and, eventually, a star (still working on that). I was lucky to get to write and report day one (covering hurricanes and riots) and win the chance to sharpen my skills over time. There is literally nothing like learning to write for radio. Without any video, you need to be creative yet crisp... a skill that helped me move from journalism to PR without too much trouble.

I am a big fan of internships, especially in this economy. Sometimes they're paid and sometimes they're not, but they're a great way to start climbing the ladder, whether back down the hall from the folks or living with 4 other kids in a one bedroom. There are so many kids out there who just need to get a grip on that bottom rung.

Now, just because it's an internship doesn't mean your boss is going to take it easy on you. My daughter is in LA trying to be a comedy writer and was a production assistant (another word for intern) for a TV production company. Similar to The Devil Wears Prada, her exec producers made her do every menial task in the book including rotating the water in the fridge, running for 18 super-large Jamba Juices at a time and schlepping a bag of golf clubs cross-town (she was the caddy). After one coffee run too many and a pizza order gone terribly wrong (not enough pepperoni for the VIPs), my daughter opted to take some time off and write more. After finding an agent and manager, she's banking on finding an exec who values her work.

Not sure if it's an east coast vs. west coast deal, but it seems that entertainment types have a rightful rap for being picky about silly stuff (like wanting only red M&Ms or an inch of ground coffee beans on their foamy, skinny lattes).

Here, on the east coast, I bring in paid interns and try my best to give them substantial work. I figure it's in everyone's best interest to give smart, hungry kids real work vs. household chores. And my reward has been kids who quickly learn the ropes and really help out when the work hits the fan. Why should I send smart, energetic kids dying to get into PR to get my tennis racket re-strung? Nuh-uh... not in anyone's best interest.

And then there are the kids whose parents "buy" them internships at some top-notch firms. Guess mom and dad figure it's worth it in the long run, but I think it fosters the Peter Pan-like sense of entitlement that's as common as flip flops and smartphones.

The whole point of an internship is to learn, and yes, grind. But puh-leez, not my coffee.

 

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