By the time summer rolls around, many students have both paid and unpaid internships lined up. Internships offer an opportunity for students to learn about the field they plan to work in and decide if it’s for them. However, with a federal judge’s ruling in New York last June saying that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated federal minimum wage and overtime laws by not paying interns who worked on the set of the 2010 movie, Black Swan, companies may have to start rethinking their unpaid internship programs or risk facing a lawsuit.
With college students facing an increasingly competitive job market after graduation, internship experience is almost as important as having a degree since students have to be able to distinguish themselves from hundreds of other job applicants.
However, not every student can secure a paid internship. If they find an unpaid one, many students are forced to forgo the opportunity because they can’t afford to work for no pay in a time when student debt continues to rise year after year.
“What happens when students can’t afford to work for no pay is that they don’t go find another internship. They go back to their summer job selling beverages on the golf course or lifeguarding or whatever it is. And that’s another thing we (at Career Development) get really concerned about because I know you can make good money at some of those jobs, but the question I have for people is ‘is it moving you forward on your career plan?’ Because if you don’t have some experiences related to your career interests, it’s going to be really hard for employers to hire you if you have little experience,” Director of Career Development Cynthia Favre said.
Critics of the use of unpaid interns argue that unpaid internships suggest privilege – someone who can afford to not work for a summer and rely on their parents for help while they complete an unpaid internship will come out with more experience. They will therefore be more desirable to companies when entering the job market than someone who had to work a summer job in order to pay the bills and gained no experience.
Even when students can manage to work an unpaid internship for the summer, if they want academic credit for it, they often have to pay for it. However, it could be a quality investment.
“What’s challenging for Career Development is that lots of students do these kinds of experiences not for academic credit, so it’s very difficult for us to advocate for students if there are problems with the internship if it’s not for credit,” Favre said.
The Fair Pay Campaign, a group organized in 2012, aims to fight employers’ use of unpaid interns and even plans to press the White House to stop its use of unpaid interns, despite the fact that the use of unpaid interns within government, as well as non-profits, is currently legal.
Some fear that if unpaid internships were eliminated, it would be that much harder to get an internship because employers would have to cut back their internship programs in order to pay their interns. This could cause many students to miss out on valuable work experience they need to be competitive in today’s job market.
However, with nearly half of the internships in the United States being unpaid, according to a 2013 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, it’s unlikely that unpaid internships are going away anytime soon.
“What I encourage people to do is think about piecing things together. Everybody has to look at their own situation and what they’re able to do and not able to do. You know, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a full time internship; you might be able to do a paid job and then a part-time unpaid internship. Students have to start becoming creative about what they can do or how they can get an experience in a different way,” Favre said.
While internships are a great way to get experience, there are other ways to gain career-related experience. Gustavus Career Development recommends joining the Gustavus alumni group on LinkedIn, taking part in career mentorship opportunities increasingly being offered through different academic departments on campus, and attending Gustavus alumni networking events, as you can often get better internships through those kinds of connections, according to Favre.
For now, it’s unlikely that most college students will be able to avoid working for no pay if they want job experience. But the bright side to unpaid internships, besides the immediate experience they give you, is that they often help lead to paid internships, which lead to potential job offers. So if you’re thinking about an unpaid internship, remember that it’s an investment in your future and better than no internship in an era where you must distinguish yourself from hundreds of other job applicants.
Where: Barr Engineering - Paid
Where: Nicollet County Environmental Services - Unpaid/academic credit
Where: Gustavus Geography Department - Paid
I have done both paid and unpaid internships, and I think there still is value in unpaid internships because I think any experience you can gain is valuable. I think the unpaid internship is great for going, ‘Okay, this is what working in a workplace is like, and this is what working with co-workers feels like.’ And that’s really what I got from my first internship, not as much experience necessarily technically, but I went ‘Oh, okay. This is what the real world feels like.’
And I think that’s of paramount importance, especially if you haven’t worked in that kind of setting before. Some people have; I hadn’t, and so I thought that was important.
I think that doing semester internships for credit is a good way of at least getting something on your transcript, so even if you’re not getting paid for it, then you’re better qualified for those paid internships down the road.
However, I know that having a paid internship is equally important, not only for the student, but also I think it gives the company an investment in the worker, and if you aren’t paying the intern, then why not just give them busy work and work that isn’t of large importance. Whereas if you’re paying them, and paying them well, you really have a stake in that person, and it makes sense to have them doing work that’s valuable to the company.
Where: Target - Paid
What: Technology Internship - Unpaid
This summer I worked at Target as an Executive Team Leader Intern. It was a lot of responsibility for a sophomore in college, and it was 40 hours a week, but it paid really well.
I also did an internship after high school that was unpaid. It was a technology internship, and it was really cool, and I learned a lot. As an 18-year-old, I was just excited to have something to learn about that might be part of my future. And it was a great foot in the door for that field, too. I have a lot of connections because of it, so it was me investing in my future, but I still think interns should be paid. I actually did that same internship again, and they paid me the second time I did it.
I understand why unpaid internships are done. It’s effective in the fact that there are a lot of fields that don’t have the money to fund it. But at the same time, I think it’s wrong. I think it’s ridiculous to expect someone to put so many hours into something without paying them, especially when you’re teaching them to do something to have a future. Maybe some internships could pay less than others, for whatever reason they give, but I think it’s wrong not to pay them at all.
Where: Volunteer Lawyers Network - Unpaid
My internship was really helpful because I got a lot of networking opportunities out of it, and I met a lot of attorneys and got to have some meaningful conversations with them and get their perspective on law school and whether or not that was a good thing or a bad thing to do. It helped me decide that I am not going to law school, at least for a while. But what was great about it was I got to meet a lot of really interesting people.
The tagline is that you’re paid in experience, and I definitely think unpaid internships are skewed against social services and social justice professions because those areas don’t have money to pay interns. Whereas you have areas like the sciences where they do have money to pay interns, and there are a lot more opportunities for paid internships there. But the cycle is such that when I graduate, it’s going to be hard for me to get a job that I want without having that experience.
But unpaid internships are a huge privilege. For me to be able to do an unpaid internship was a huge privilege because I had the resources that allowed me to do that. There are a lot of people who don’t have the resources not to be paid for two months. That is really frustrating. I didn’t have to pay for housing or groceries this summer because I lived with a family. I recognize that I wouldn’t have been able to do the internship if not for certain factors, and I am extremely lucky to have been able to do it, and so I really am grateful for that. But it’s a never ending cycle because people who want to do jobs like I want to do don’t get the opportunity to do paid internships.
Where: Open Door Health Center - Unpaid/academic credit
The company I interned at really valued me as an intern; I wasn’t like some scum on the floor. I think that differs wherever you go because I’m guessing some unpaid interns maybe aren’t very valued, so I think I got really lucky with that. It was a really good experience and I loved every second of it.
Whether an internship is beneficial or not depends on the internship. I’m looking to go into public health, so there are mostly unpaid internships. And it has to be the right time, like you don’t want to struggle for money. But I also had three jobs when I was doing the unpaid internship, so it was limited hours a week. It wasn’t like I was doing a 60 hour-a-week unpaid internship, so I had time to go to classes and work and stuff. And so I think it depends on the person, and it also depends on the internship itself. I wasn’t expecting to be paid, but I was more so just looking for the experience.