Are Unpaid Internships Worth the Time?

The question of whether there is value in completing an unpaid internship has been a topic of debate for many college students.

The completion of an internship is required for many of the academic majors and concentrations at Marist College where students can earn credits toward their degree. Even in programs where an internship is not required to earn a degree, students are still strongly encouraged to explore possible internship opportunities.

Internships give students the opportunity to enter the “real world” and work a job similar to one they may have after graduating where they can establish professional connections that could potentially lead to a full-time career. However, many of these internships are unpaid.

“Internships provide valuable experience for students in a professional environment,” said Deborah Porter, an internship coordinator in the school of communication at Marist. “Students can make contacts, build a professional network, and add skills and experience to their resumes’ that perspective employers value. The fact that many of these opportunities are unpaid is a small sacrifice students have to make for the numerous positives that come with completing an internship.” Porter said.

How much of a financial sacrifice are unpaid interns making? The total cost of tuition for a semester for a fulltime undergraduate student (undergraduates taking 12-16 credits) at Marist is $15,350. These students typically take 15 credits each semester dividing those into five classes for three credits each. Most programs require that students earn three credits through their internships. Considering the total tuition cost for 15 credits, those three credits at Marist would cost $3070.

“When you consider the cost of paying for the credits with travel costs and other daily expenses, it actually costs the unpaid intern more financially to participate in the internship than they can make at it,” said Marilyn Green, a career counselor at Therapeutic Counseling Services in Poughkeepsie, NY. “I think employers and interns are put into a difficult position because while interns would like to be paid, part of what makes companies want to hire interns is the fact that they do not have to pay them. If they have to start paying interns, it may make the companies less likely to hire interns in the first place and without internships, none of these students will be able to get jobs in the future.”

“I feel that this idea of financial compensation has actually hurt interns and companies that hire them,” said Steve Balsan, the Media and Public Relations Coordinator for the Rockland Boulders professional baseball team, a company that employs many interns but does not pay them. “Previously we had interns work for the entire day, and while that was valuable, many of them quit because they felt they were doing to much work to not be paid for it. So now we only have interns work about 20-40 hours a week which helps us keep them, but the interns themselves are not getting the most that they can get out of the experience,” said Balsan.

According to the United States Fair Labor Standards Act, unpaid internships can avoid minimum wage rules only if interns learn skills “similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.” Some companies, including magazine publishing company Conde Nest, have had to end their internship programs following lawsuits alleging violations of minimum wage laws.

“I agree that not getting paid is a drawback, but there are so many more benefits to internships and I never would have gotten a job out of college without them,” said Anna Krishna, a recent graduate of Trinity College and now a trainer and recruiter for Merrill Lynch. “You get valuable work experience, you build connections, boost your resume, and can gain practical skills you can never pick up in a classroom, in a way not getting paid can be a plus because your focus is on the experience and not on earning a paycheck,” said Krishna.

One aspect of unpaid internships that many of its detractors have pointed out is that an unpaid internship is not a practical option for everybody. Unpaid interns must come from families that can support them financially so that the lack of financial compensation does not pose a problem to the well being of the intern. In fact, the United States is one of the few countries wealthy enough for unpaid internships to even be an option. In some less wealthy countries, unpaid internships do not even exist because there would be no way to fill a position that does not pay.

“Everyday it seems that I talk to someone who finds a great internship opportunity that they cannot accept because it is unpaid,” said Anne Johnson, a career counselor in Poughkeepsie, NY. “In most cases, they have to work to help support their families and if they take time away to complete an unpaid internship, it puts their family at risk.”

U.S. Capital Building Interns posing in front of the U.S. Capital. Photo found through creative commons search

U.S. Capital Building Interns posing in front of the U.S. Capital. Photo found through creative commons search

There is no denying that the job market is competitive and getting a job out of college is nearly impossible without having completed internships. However, the question of whether it pays to not get paid is a debate that will continue as long as they exist.

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