A recent article in the New York Times about the growth of unpaid internships has spurred an interesting debate among many people -- one that mirrors conversations I have with students almost daily about intern pay. Several times each week, I receive queries from media outlets and other organizations and businesses seeking interns. Most of these opportunities are unpaid, offering (or sometimes requiring) college credit in exchange for the experience.
But a lack of intern pay doesn't seem to dissuade students from applying to many of these internships, particularly ones that offer the chance to gain useful professional skills and experience. To my surprise, paid internships don't always attract the most candidates. Location and intern duties play just as large a role, in luring students to apply. And many of these students are juggling classes as well as part- or even full-time jobs -- and sometimes even a child of their own -- along with the internship.
After reading the Times piece, I took an informal survey of several recent and about-to-be graduates about intern pay, some of whom are still looking for jobs, on whether they thought unpaid internships were worthwhile or fair, or should be illegal. I thought many would express frustration over having done work for which they weren't compensated monetarily. On the contrary, a common theme among their answers was that while paid internships would be better, unpaid internships were beneficial if they offered real-world, practical experience. The feeling I come away with is that unpaid internships are an important lesson in the concept of caveat emptor. As with any job, applicants should try to find out as much ahead of time about the duties involved before signing on.
"I would definitely say unpaid internships are worth it,'' said Brittany Harris, who interned at NBC, CBS, and Kurtis Productions in Chicago as a college student and is now looking for a full-time job as a broadcast journalist. Her work in one internship led to an offer of part-time paid work with the company while she still was in school. "The experience you gain is indescribable,' she says. Classes can only teach you so much about how the real world operates, "but nothing beats seeing how it works on a day-to-day basis. It's also a great way to network. I have heard of tons of interns eventually getting hired on to staff after they have completed college.''
Some do express reservations. Thomas Pardee, who has done both paid and unpaid internships, says he is becoming suspicious of unpaid opportunities, especially those requiring full-time hours.
"They are really only accessible to people who have the financial support from someone else to survive them,'' he says. He also notes that in many workplaces, the line between what an intern does and what an entry-level employee does is very sketchy. "And many don't offer nearly as much instruction or actual educational attention from supervisors as should be required,'' he says. "It's not a difficult stretch to assume many companies are unloading the burdens of their smaller paid staffs onto unpaid interns, and not giving them enough in return in terms of guidance or overall perspective in the industry, which is literally supposed to be the entire payoff when you don't get a paycheck.''
But just about everyone else I asked about intern pay found that they did, in fact, receive just that kind of payoff -- or certainly saw the potential.
"Unpaid internships are totally worth the hours you put in and the hard work,'' says Hannah Ferdinand, a production assistant for the Dr. Oz Show who did five internships while in college. "Employees of the workplace understand that you are working and learning for free.'' It shows that you are serious about the career and are willing to put in the hard work needed for the reward of a potential job.
"Any type of experience in your field is good, it builds your resume and portfolio,'' says Priya Shah, who will graduate in May and is job-searching across the country. "Unpaid internships are worth it because you are building experience and contacts. And you may land a job after it's over. It's long hours, a lot of work and then when you go out for lunch, you think 'Wait, how am I paying for this?' But you can learn skills that you wouldn't necessarily learn in a classroom.''
Nick Orichuia, who grew up in Italy and came to the United States for graduate school, says: "I think unpaid internships are almost always a valuable experience, especially for students in college. It really is up to the student to make the most of the internship. In most cases, I think employers are interested in pushing interns to the limits to see if they are valid candidates to be hired someday. That is a great learning experience for the intern. If the employer is not interested in developing the intern, then it's up to the student to push himself or herself to learn as much as he or she can. In my opinion, internships shouldn't only be seen as opportunities to be hired in the place where one interns, but part of a larger learning experience.''
To its credit, Atlantic Media is pledging to begin paying all interns, and it likely will see a more diverse pool of applicants as a result. Unfortunately, not every employer can afford this kind of commitment.
Nobody respects and values interns' time more than I do. I am reminded hourly of their hard work, energy and tenaciousness. Do they deserve compensation? Yes. But the value of internships can't be calculated in solely financial terms. And unpaid interns go a long way toward breaking the stereotype that today's youth are emotionally spoiled, demanding of praise and tangible reward at every turn. One's perception as an industrious worker -- even without a paycheck -- can be worth its weight in gold.
Jennifer Halperin is the internship coordinator at Columbia College Chicago, and Money College's Internship Insider. Her column runs every Wednesday; send suggestions for story ideas to Jennifer at MoneyCollege@walletpop.com.
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