Students weigh benefits of unpaid internships with lack of paychecks
"Internships have become the gateway into the white-collar workforce," Ross Perlin, a Stanford graduate who is writing a book on the rise of internships, said in a recent interview with The New York Times.
Indeed, as more and more employers are requiring experience for entry-level jobs, an increasing number of students are turning to internships to develop their skills. A 2008 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that 50 percent of graduating students had participated in internships, compared to the 17 percent of graduating students who completed internships in 1992. Experts estimate that one-fourth to one-half of these internships were unpaid.
The unpaid internship's rise in popularity is problematic because it favors well-connected and well-to-do students. Many less affluent students cannot afford to go a summer without making any money or don't have the connections to land them an internship in the first place. For students on the Hill, money is an important factor to consider when finding and procuring a summer job or internship, but it affects each student in a different way.
"Colby is an expensive school and I want to help my family pay for it in any way that I can," Dash Wasserman '12 said. Wasserman has never considered looking for an unpaid internship, but instead uses the yearly break from school to earn money. "Summer for me isn't a time for exploration," Wasserman said. "It's a time for catching up on finances."
This summer, Wasserman worked at the Colby Bookstore because "it provided me with a stable income and I was able to live on campus for a small fee," he said.
"Don't get me wrong, I had a great summer and I got to work with a lot of my friends," he said. However, even if Wasserman were interested in doing an internship, he is unsure that he would be able to find one. "I'm from New Orleans and there aren't a lot of internships there because I would be competing with students from local colleges in a place where not many people have heard of Colby," he said. "If I lived in New York City it would be a different story."
Will O'Brien '12 spent his summer away from the Hill working as a paramedic trainee in his hometown of Rochester, NY. "I spent the summer riding around in an ambulance," he said. Still, O'Brien did not receive compensation for his work.
"I'm really lucky that I'm in a position where my summer job choice didn't have to be dependent on money," he said. "The job really helped to develop my confidence."
Coline Ludwig '12 did an unpaid internship this past summer at the public health nursing division of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Augusta, Maine (CDC). As an international studies major, Ludwig is interested in public health and "wanted to experience firsthand how the system worked in Maine," she said.
"When I started looking for internships I knew I wasn't going to find anything that was paid, so I mostly looked for unpaid internships," Ludwig said.
Working during the school year provided Ludwig with more flexibility over the summer. "I have a work study job during the year so I was able to save up my money so that I could afford to do an unpaid internship," she said. "I was okay with not making any money because I knew that the experience that I gained from the internship would help me get a paying job in the future."
As far as the internship went, "I had a lot of freedom with my responsibilities," Ludwig said, and she was mostly able to choose to perform tasks and work on projects that interested her. "I did a lot of shadowing people, sitting in on meetings and making brochures," she said.
"I learned so much just by observation," Ludwig said. "While I was always interested in public health, the internship showed me that it is definitely a field I want to work in in the future."
The increasing number of unpaid internships in today's market is not only fueled by students' desire for personal growth and job experience but by employers' attempts to hold down costs in a failing economy. As a direct result of the trend, the educational quality of internships is visibly declining, and labor force regulators in Oregon have found numerous abuses of labor laws in the unpaid internship market. "We've had cases where unpaid interns really were displacing workers and where they weren't being supervised in an educational capacity," Bob Estabrook, spokesman for the Oregon Labor Department, said.
According to Erica Humphrey, Assistant Director and Internship Coordinator at the Career Center, the Career Center is doing its own research into the new federal regulations on unpaid versus paid internships. Currently the center advises students to pursue both paid and unpaid internships-"and to pursue two, three or four before they graduate," Humphrey said.
The Career Center recognizes that not all students are in the financial position to undertake an unpaid internship, and thus it administers some endowed and expendable funds to assist students with living expenses and other internship-related costs.
To access this funding, students complete an application, which can be downloaded from the Career Center's website - or be picked up in the Career Center's library. The deadline for JanPlan funding is November 1, 2010 and the deadline for summer funding is April 15, 2011.