The Benefits of IT Internships and Volunteering
The difference between having a job and having a career often comes down to the things you do when you're not "on the clock." Whereas a job is a contract-based responsibility where you trade labor for compensation, a career is the sum of all your professional activity both in and out of the office.
For anyone who is just starting down an IT industry career path, a strategy that can help to build your early career opportunities is to take part in internships and volunteer roles with non-profit organizations.
Let's look at the benefits related to internships and volunteering, and then review how to approach these opportunities.
No pay, no way?
First off, let's address the elephant in the room: Almost everyone wants to get paid for the work they do. As the Joker says when addressing a gathering of crime bosses in The Dark Knight, "If you're good at something, never do it for free."
Fair enough. This is a completely natural and understandable reaction. But it's important to remember that volunteering and internships are meant to generate long-term career benefits that continue to resonate long after you've completed the work involved.
Career building is largely based on the work we do after we've clocked out from our jobs. It's really a type of self-investment, similar to continuing education or at-home skills practice.
Become an IT volunteer
Volunteering at a nonprofit organization or for a government-sponsored program is an excellent way to hone your IT skills in a largely welcoming environment. While many organizations can get volunteers to show up to perform physical labor or other low-level tasks, they are less likely to attract skilled IT workers.
If you can help with higher-level jobs like setting up and configuring networks and client machines, then you're already a hot commodity in the eyese of groups that depend on volunteers. IT volunteers can typically maintain a high degree of control over their work arrangement — often more control than found with a full-time job.
For example, IT volunteers can frequently set their own schedules within the parameters of the organization's operating hours.
One key to setting up a positive IT volunteering experience is to manage the expectations of the organization as to what your current abilities are. It's not a positive experience to repeatedly tell someone, "I don't know how to do that," when they come to you with different work requests.
You can avoid this scenario by bringing a list of the types of IT work you can do (i.e., create wireless networks, configure networked print devices, etc.) to your initial meeting with the volunteer coordinator. Both parties will be more satisfied by starting with a clear understanding of your skills.
Get IT in Writing
Some large nonprofits will have a version of a volunteer agreement ready for you to sign before you start. If you are volunteering with a smaller group, they may not have this type of paperwork in place. If so, you should take the initiative and draft a basic volunteer agreement to use with them.
A basic volunteer agreement should include these items:
- Duration of the volunteer period
- List of the organization's expectations and requirements
- List of the volunteer's expectations and requirements
- Any special conditions concerning physical issues or disabilities
- Confidentiality agreement
Basically, it's best to communicate as much as possible at the beginning of the volunteer period to avoid any misunderstandings later. (This is actually a key tenet in all types of IT contract work, be it paid or volunteer.)
A quick internet search of "volunteer agreements" will lead you to several examples of such documents that you can use as a template for creating your own.
Benefits of Becoming a Volunteer
There are numerous gains to be made through IT volunteering. It gives tech workers valuable experience to keep their skills honed. Volunteer work is a standout line item to have on your résumé, as many hiring managers specifically look for it when reviewing job candidates.
Working as a volunteer gives you insight into different types of nonprofit functions and workplaces, and can even include some training in additional skills that fall outside of your IT experience.
Finally, much like internships — which we'll look at next — IT volunteering can result in receiving a permanent job offer from the organization you worked at. Volunteering helps develop IT skills and helps career newcomers learn how to fit into a workplace, but it can also serve as an audition for a paying gig.
Get an IT Internship
Taking on an internship at a company is often sneered at as being nothing more than an unpaid job. As we discussed earlier, however, there is job development and there is career development. Doing an IT internship is one way to double down on gaining work experience and on-the-job training while auditioning for a future paid position.
IT internships share many of the same benefits as volunteering. One difference between them is that, where volunteer work is a good option for IT workers of many different skill levels, IT internships are most relevant to people who are just entering the IT industry or have limited job experience. Industry veterans generally don't look at doing internships, as they are more likely (and better equipped) to find paid employment.
An IT internship typically comes with similar terms and conditions as a permanent position. Interns are expected to follow the same company rules and workplace guidelines as regular employees.
Most companies, however, recognize that IT interns are looking to learn as much as possible during their stay. To this end, interns will often receive work duties that correspond to their previous education and job roles of interest.
It should be noted that not all internships are totally unpaid. In some areas, IT internship programs are conducted in partnership with city or state governments that put up some portion of wages to help encourage participation in the program. Businesses in these programs will often do a wage-split to cover a portion of the intern's predetermined wage.
These wages are typically not up to industry scale, but they do provide interns with some financial resources to keep the lights on and have groceries in the fridge.
Whether you are better suited for IT volunteering or an IT internship, you'll find that both options offer great career development potential, as well as providing a way to hone your skills and knowledge in anticipation of the main event: a long and rewarding career in the IT industry.