Are unpaid internships worth the cost?
Published: Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 23:03
Having an internship is becoming the only path to employment – a path that is often unpaid and even costly for those trying to get their foot in the workplace door.
“There are a lot of questions about the ethics of unpaid internships,” said University of Connecticut career counselor Dennis Rouelle.
U.S. labor laws dictate that unpaid internships without college credit at for-profit agencies are illegal. However, a single college credit typically costs between $400 and $500 at a public university, meaning students who take on unpaid internships can end up shelling out over $1,000 for a three-credit internship course.
The U.S. Department of Labor outlines the qualifications of unpaid internships, which includes the requirement that the training is for the benefit of the trainees. These requirements are meant ensure that the unpaid interns are not being taken advantage of.
However, the Department of Labor cannot eliminate the perception that unpaid interns are less valuable than paid interns when it comes to hiring for a full-time job.
Employers frequently see unpaid internships as illegitimate, even though there are often no differences between the work expected of unpaid and paid interns, Rouelle said.
“I can tell you that employers give preference to students who have done paid internships,” he said. “It’s often a mistaken belief that unpaid internships are only doing gopher kinds of things, like getting coffee, when that’s not always true.”
Students can counter the negative stereotype associated with the unpaid intern by clarifying what they accomplished and what skills they learned during their internships on their resumes, he said.
Rouelle stressed that students should sit down with their employers before they begin their internships to negotiate exactly what responsibilities they will be accountable for as an intern so they aren’t taken advantage of.
Although paid internships are often more preferable to students for financial reasons, when students are faced with the option of holding an unpaid internship or not having one at all, Rouelle said students should take the internship to gain invaluable work experience.
Although Rouelle recommends that students participate in internships, paid or not, he recognized that some students simply can’t afford to take an unpaid internship, making internships a “classist issue.”
UConn charges over $400 per credit during the summer and winter sessions, and holding an internship during the semester takes away valuable time from students who work to support their education.
Some students said they enjoyed being employed and gaining work experience, despite lacking financial compensation for their work.
UConn student Meital Sandbank, a 6th-semester human development and family studies major, said she was grateful for the opportunity to have a 2012 summer internship as an assistant at a Newton, Mass. Preschool.
“They didn’t take advantage of me and incorporated what I wanted to do,” she said. “It was a great experience.”
“Students who will experience financial hardship as a result of taking on an unpaid internship should visit Career Services for advice,” Rouelle said.
“I would always recommend that students do an internship for the students to get a hand-on feel for what it’s like to experience the workplace,” he said. “It can be a crucially eye-opening experience.”