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How to protect yourself in an internship

By Isabelle Coetzee

Entering the job market is tough; especially when you don’t have enough experience for an entry level job. To bridge this gap, some companies offer internships – an opportunity to work alongside experienced staff members for a monthly stipend.

Most employers abide by regulations and ensure their interns are taken care of. They create a supportive learning environment to help their interns kick off their careers.

But not all interns are this lucky; some are taken advantage of, and others are neglected. This week we found out more about internships so that you can protect yourself by being informed.  

The big question: How much are interns paid?

According to Chris Blair, CEO of 21st Century, a South African remuneration consultancy, it’s important to distinguish between an intern salary and an intern stipend.

The former is a payment in return for work done, while the latter is meant to assist with basic living costs during the course of an internship. 

“Stipends range from R3,000 to R6,000 per month, while intern salaries can go up to R15,000 per month – depending on which industry you are in,” says Blair.

This article will focus on interns who earn monthly stipends, not salaries. Blair points out that these types of internships will last from a few months to one year.

What rights do interns have?

Simone Beukes, head of human resources at Fetola, a company that has supported over 65 interns over the last 10 years, explains that as an intern, you have the same rights in the workplace as an employee.

“You may retain your title as an intern, but if the company awards all employees an increase, this has to apply to you as well,” says Beukes.

“You also qualify for leave. The basic conditions of employment are automatically applied to an intern,” she explains.

How to know when something is wrong

You should become concerned about your intern position if you are kept for longer than a year without a promotion or salary increase.

So says Jo Harmse, who’s responsible for bookkeeping and payroll at Unique Personnel. She suggests you follow up with your employer after being with the company for a year.

Blair agrees that if the internship, where only a stipend is paid, lasts more than one year, you should become concerned about your future with the company.

One year later: The day of reckoning

“The internship is an investment – like your studies were – and it gives you work experience to get a job whilst the company exposes you to the work environment,” says Blair.

“Try to add as much value as you can and learn as much as possible so that the company wants to employ you permanently,” he advises.

At the end of your internship your employer will decide whether you will be hired or not.

Catherine Wijnberg, founder and CEO of Fetola, says interns who prove themselves as competent and willing to learn more are appointed to the team.

However, she points out that this does not happen in all companies.

“In large corporations, sadly, there is frequently no intention to employ interns. It is just an exercise in ticking the boxes for Skills Development legislation,” says Wijnberg.

“For the intern this is sub-optimal as they don't get the necessary experience, and many go out and still can’t find work,” she adds.

Advice for new interns

Before accepting an internship, Beukes suggests visiting the company, understanding what you will be required to do, and ensure this is properly stipulated in a contract.

She adds that you need to know what your work hours will be, as well as how much you will earn during the course of your internship.

“There's often a disconnect between the expectation and the reality – both from the company and from the intern. So speak up clearly in advance to avoid disappointment,” says Beukes.

Once the internship starts, keep in mind that it ought to be a learning environment.

“You're not expected to know everything. You're there to learn and gain experience. If you feel you're being asked to perform tasks you haven’t been trained for, speak up and ask for input and supervision,” advises Beukes.

“Communication is key. Ask questions, and speak up if you're uncomfortable,” she says.

Martin Westcott, executive chairman of PE Corporate Services (PECS), believes there are two things you should keep in mind during your internship:

  • Be proactive and assertive: Employers are under enormous pressure and this means they don’t always have enough time to mentor their interns. Interns need to act if there’s an opportunity to participate in work. Sometimes managers don’t know what to do with interns, so this will help. Be productive and don’t take your internship for granted.
  • Take on additional training: Don’t be shy to take on further training. Sometimes your internship isn’t in line with what you studied, so this is an opportunity to out-skill yourself as much as possible.

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