When unpaid internships marginalize

Photo courtesy Picserver
Jessica Wade

Internships can offer a lot to college students. They introduce a network of professionals within the student’s career field, boost resumes and add to portfolios, bridge the gap between college and the professional world and, for many majors at UNO, they fulfill an internship requirement. It’s unfortunate that internships can also occasionally marginalize.

Unpaid internships do have stipulations from the Department of Labor: The internship must be intended to benefit the intern, the intern cannot replace regular employees, they are not necessarily guaranteed a job at the conclusion of the internship and it must be clear to the intern before they are hired that they will not be paid. The idea is that a student or recent graduate is gaining the experience necessary to succeed in their career field through real-life experience.

Joe Hayes, the assistant director of UNO’s Academic and Career Development Center, said that if the primary beneficiary of the internship is the student intern, then legally it can be unpaid.

“That said, the vast majority of available posted internships remain of the paid variety as employers know that in order to be competitive and attract interns – they must pay,” Hayes said.

A great system in theory, and for some students, devoting time to an unpaid position is entirely doable and rewarding. However, for many students the 20 hours a week they might have to spend as an unpaid intern results in a loss of roughly $700 a month they would be making at a minimum wage job. This is $700 that could go to rent, utilities, groceries or tuition.

So, is the experience truly worth the loss of income? Hayes said it depends.

“Naturally it’s better for individuals to be paid than not to be paid for work. That said, an internship should not be categorized as a part-time job,” Hayes said. “An internship is more about exploring a new field and learning from others – an extension of the classroom, often guided by an outside professional – if you will.”

Hayes also added that if a student hopes to enter a field where unpaid internships are the norm, such as nonprofits, and can gain new skills and experience, “then yes, an unpaid internship seems worthwhile.”

“However, the reality is that unpaid internships don’t fit in with everyone’s life and comes with an opportunity cost of missing out on wages that a paid opportunity affords,” Hayes said. “In this case, I’d want a clear understanding of the internship duties, who would be providing the supervised training and to think through how this opportunity could offer career clarity.”

According to a report released by Bloomberg in 2012, over the past 30 years, the cost of higher education has risen by 1,120 percent. A trend likely to continue in Nebraska as the state continues to diverge funding away from the NU system. This reality of high-costing education, an increasingly competitive job market and the cycle of unpayable student loans makes it difficult for students to devote 10-25 hours of unpaid labor to an internship.

“Perhaps though a better question than the paid versus unpaid internship debate may be: why would anyone pass on an experience that can connect classroom lessons to a real-world setting?” Hayes said.

Unfortunately, the decision to pass on such an opportunity is a choice between making rent for the month and possibly advancing in a chosen career field.

For students seeking advice on resumes, internships, job interviews or anything else necessary to career development, UNO’s ACDC office, located in room 115 of the Eppley Administration Building, is ready to offer expertise and answer questions.