The Hidden Value of the Unpaid Internship

TAGS: The Unpaid Internship; The Most Necessary Evil, paid internship, internship, gaining experience, David Adamson, Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coach, education, college

This article is written for collegiate strength and conditioning coaches, as well as those desiring to become college strength coaches. I have very little knowledge of the process of entering strength/fitness professions outside of the collegiate setting, nor will I make presumptions of the course of actions necessary to enter these professions. However, I am quite certain that many of the concepts discussed in this article would carry over to any career, or any aspect of life for that matter.

Sacrifice and Commitment

While young and upcoming strength coaches may feel mistreated for not receiving a paycheck for their time and efforts, unpaid internships are not merely a scam as some may claim. Although no compensation may pose a significant difficulty to many individuals, the long-term benefits make up for the short-term risks and sacrifices, and any intern who is truly committed to working at the college level can achieve this goal regardless of income level, personal attachments, or any other perceived roadblocks.

Students often dream that once they finish college they will not only be able to find a job, but they will also make enough money to live comfortably (at the very least). However, upon receiving their degrees, many graduates discover that they are now on their own—but with no job, no income, and many unresolved dreams. Notice that I did not say exercise science graduates or strength and conditioning jobs in the above sentences. The fact is, it is very difficult to begin a career with only a degree and no experience, regardless of the field of choice.

One solution to the lack of experience problem is to perform an internship. Many times, however, internships are unpaid and some even force the prospective intern to relocate to a different area of the nation. But this is true of many professions, not just strength and conditioning.

Yes, performing an unpaid internship poses a financial risk and takes tremendous sacrifice, but if you want to be great at something, then you have to take risks and sacrifice things that may be important to you. And yes, it is possible to come from a family whose combined income is less than $15,000 while paying tuition, be in a serious relationship, travel nearly 1,800 miles across the country, and work 60 hours a week at the university and 20 hours a week at a part-time job all while doing an unpaid internship. How can I make the assertion that this is possible? You guessed it—these were the issues I had to contend with when trying to start my career. I have also met several other coaches who have dealt with the same or similar roadblocks while getting their careers started. If you are committed to something, you will do nearly anything to make it happen. All those not committed, on the other hand, should find something they can be committed to.

Baggage sorting

Non-Monetary Compensation

Most of the interns we get are part-time interns. However, when I tell them that they will probably be performing a full-time “unpaid” internship before they can progress in this field, they are in complete disbelief. I have never seen someone with only one part-time internship (30 hours or less per week) under his or her belt succeed in this field. Yet, every single intern I have seen who has performed a full-time internship (40-60 hours per week) has moved on to the next level of coaching.

There are several things a full-time internship offers and reveals about an intern, and these go far beyond a simple paycheck. The non-monetary compensation received by the intern includes experience, knowledge, networking, and a more appealing resume. All of these could lead to future paid employment. The full-time internship reveals the commitment, dedication, and passion of the intern to supervisors and future employers. In turn, it also implies a greater and more developed knowledge base, showing greater experience than an individual who completed only a part-time internship or no internship at all.

It seems that those who are trying to enter this field often feel that they are entitled to being paid just because they've earned a degree. But in all honesty, who cares?! What is it about a degree that makes you special? Everyone who is applying for strength and conditioning jobs has a degree. I haven't met one intern, including myself, who has been qualified to be a coach. Why? College programs are inefficient in preparing students to be strength coaches. Most programs' curriculum focus more on the general population, youth fitness, or the elderly. Those that do cover the athletic population are very general in nature. I recently spoke to an undergraduate exercise science student who told me that his classes never covered any aspect of speed training. Yet, the students coming out of programs such as this feel that they are qualified to be paid for coaching. On the contrary, the majority of graduates are not prepared to handle the workload or mental demands of a graduate assistant, much less a full-time coach.

Besides academic programs providing an insufficient knowledge base, they also seldom teach students how to coach on the floor. Therefore, an internship becomes just an extension of the degree in which students may actually learn how to coach. That is, if the intern pays attention to how the coaches work with the athletes and practices the art himself.

Justification for Compensation

In many cases, an internship is a requirement for graduation. In this case, no compensation should ever be expected since the internship is actually a class for which the intern is already paying.

teaching ltt bench

For those who are doing unpaid internships on their own accord, the question of being paid becomes more relevant. Yet, unless the intern offers something significant to the program, why would he deserve to be paid with anything more than experience and knowledge? The reality is that performing the internship helps the intern far more than it helps the program for which he is interning. No college athletic program requires the strength and conditioning department to hire interns, meaning that no staff member’s contract includes the acts of supervising, working with, or teaching interns. Yet, almost every program that hires interns has a staff member who does these tasks outside of his job description. So, it would be safe to say that, in most cases, interns can cause an unnecessary burden for the existing staff that, in turn, provides a wealth of knowledge and experience for the intern.

There is a huge difference between the competency of an intern and a graduate assistant. There are still programs that only offer tuition and no stipend to their graduate assistants. If that is all a program can pay a graduate assistant who plays a significant role in coaching and handling teams, then how is an intern supposed to be paid?

While many interns want to be paid, where will that money come from? The same is true for paying college athletes, but that discussion should be left for a different time and place. Everyone wants to be paid, or be paid more, but the money has to be there first. There are very few college athletic programs that actually make money. The overwhelming majority of programs lose money every single year. Most people have no idea what goes into running an athletic program, for the cost far exceeds ticket and merchandise sales. If programs are losing money, how (or why) would they pay interns?

If we speak hypothetically and say that interns could be paid, some may argue that the talent pool would improve since this would encourage more bright minds to apply. However, while this may be true to an extent, it would also increase the pool of candidates at the opposite end of that spectrum—those who are worthless, lazy, and doing it for the wrong reasons. Consequently, some of these individuals would get hired and move on to disgrace our profession and do a disservice to the athletes. Furthermore, if the prospective intern is trying to get into this profession for the money, then he is also doing it for the wrong reason. The amount anyone in this profession makes (with the exception of a very select few) will not be worth the amount of time and effort one must dedicate to his job.

The Most Necessary Evil

There is no doubt that performing an unpaid internship poses a significant risk to those trying to enter our profession. However, it is a risk worth taking for those who are truly serious about becoming a strength coach at the college level. The risk is just about a necessity for nearly all prospective strength coaches, but it will be worth the reward. In fact, the internship is probably the single most important factor in helping the intern move on to achieve a paid position. The commitment level of those that take this risk will be tested, and for those that pass the test, their dreams will be realized.

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