2:59am

Tue May 1, 2012
Business

N.H. To The Unemployed: Try An Unpaid Internship

Originally published on Tue May 1, 2012 6:47 am

Electropac, a firm that makes printed circuit boards in New Hampshire, once had 500 paid employees. Today, it has 34. But thanks to a state program for the unemployed, it also now offers unpaid internships.

Across the country, unpaid internships are on the rise for older adults looking to change careers or rebound from layoffs. In New Hampshire, a state-run program encourages the unemployed to take six-week internships at companies with the hope of getting a permanent job.

In New Hampshire, close to 600 people have already interned at 275 companies in what's called the Return to Work program. The state says more than 60 percent of the interns received jobs offers at the companies where they trained.

Hiring As A Gamble

Electropac, housed in a large, brick mill building in Manchester, stands out among the graffiti-splattered warehouses on Willow Street. Owner Raymond Boissoneau says he wants to hire more people. The problem is he can't afford the gamble.

"You're taking on someone that you'd be training," he says. "And while they're going through a training program, they're not able to produce the necessary products that you need in a profitable manner."

Carol Nyberg from Manchester was laid off six months ago. In a previous layoff, she lost her home. This last setback hit her again.

"The first thing is you worry about all the standard bills you have to pay," she says. "We have gotten behind on a lot of them, because on unemployment, you have to make choices: food and rent vs. lights and heat."

For the past several weeks, Nyberg has come to Electropac to learn how to inspect circuit board panels.

Nyberg just turned 60. Before this opportunity, she says, her prospects were dim. While she's not receiving a paycheck, she's hopeful this stint will lead to one.

"It's a two-sided thing — if I'm going to like the job, if he's going to like me," she says. "So far, I've been doing really well."

Nyberg says there is a part of her that questions why she has to work for free.

"I'm still getting my unemployment check, which isn't much. It's better than nothing," she says. "And I have a chance of working. And that's all most people want. They just want a job."

'Better Than Nothing'?

Robert McIntosh is a career counselor across the state border in Lowell, Mass. He says this unpaid internship might help Nyberg close any gaps in her resume.

"It's better than nothing, really. And it's better than sitting at home," he says.

But McIntosh also says: Buyer, beware.

"What they really need to look out for," he says, "is to make sure that the person who is supposed to be trained at the company is actually getting trained — and not being used just for free labor."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's stay with the job market. Unpaid internships, you often think of them as an opportunity for younger people to get some experience. Well, they are becoming a more popular option for older adults looking to change careers or rebound from layoffs. In New Hampshire, a state-run program encourages the unemployed to intern at companies as a first step towards a full-time job.

Sheryl Rich-Kern has the report.

SHERYL RICH-KERN, BYLINE: Drive past the graffiti-splattered warehouses on Willow Street in Manchester, New Hampshire, and one large, brick mill building stands out. It houses Electropac, a firm that makes printed circuit boards.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

RICH-KERN: Step inside and you see a cavernous room that displays old machinery.

RAYMOND BOISSONEAU: Behind you are some of the photographs on our 20th anniversary.

RICH-KERN: Owner Raymond Boissoneau shows me around the private museum. He explains that at one time, Electropac was a giant in the industry with nearly 500 employees. Today it has 34. Boissoneau says he wants to hire more people. The problem is, he can't afford the gamble.

BOISSONEAU: You're taking on someone that you'd be training. And while they're going through a training program, they're not able to produce the necessary products that you need in a profitable manner.

RICH-KERN: But recently, Boissoneau heard about a state program that would let him train people part-time for six weeks - without having to pay them. Sounds like a good deal for employers. But how many job applicants would sign up for that?

In New Hampshire, close to 600 people have already interned at 275 companies in what's called the Return to Work program.

CAROL NYBERG: My name is Carol Nyberg. I'm from Manchester.

RICH-KERN: Nyberg was laid off six months ago. In a previous layoff, she lost her home. This last setback hit her again.

NYBERG: First thing is you worry about all the standard bills you have to pay. And we have gotten behind on a lot of them because on unemployment, you have to make choices. Food and rent versus lights and heat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

RICH-KERN: For the past several weeks, Nyberg's come to Electropac to learn how to inspect circuit board panels. Nyberg just turned 60. She says, before this opportunity, her prospects were dim. And while she's not receiving a paycheck, she's hopeful this stint will lead to one.

NYBERG: It's a two-sided thing: if I'm going to like the job and if he's going to like me. And so far I've been doing really well.

RICH-KERN: Is there some part of you that's saying to yourself, why do I have to work for free?

NYBERG: Oh, definitely. I'm still getting my unemployment check, which isn't much. It's better than nothing. And I have a chance of working. And that's all most people want. They just want a job.

RICH-KERN: Robert McIntosh is a career counselor across the state border in Lowell, Massachusetts. He says this unpaid internship might help Nyberg close any gaps in her resume.

ROBERT MCINTOSH: You know, it's better than nothing. Really. And it's better than sitting at home.

RICH-KERN: But Macintosh also says: buyer beware.

MCINTOSH: What they really need to look out for is to make sure that the person who is supposed to be trained at the company is actually getting trained, you know, and not being used just for free labor.

RICH-KERN: According to the latest data from New Hampshire's Return to Work program, more than 60 percent of the interns received jobs offers at the companies where they trained.

Carol Nyberg got the job offer she was hoping for from Electropac last week. She is now drawing a paycheck. As word gets out, the program is gaining traction. But the long-term results aren't in. No one is saying unpaid internships are ideal for older workers. But other states are closely monitoring New Hampshire's model.

For NPR News, I'm Sheryl Rich-Kern in New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.