Unpaid internships put a squeeze on students’ wallets

Internships have become increasingly important in today’s job market.

Ever since Chris Maher started his unpaid sports management internship, he’s found himself staying in more often, thinking about his finances and repeatedly surviving on ramen noodles.

Maher, a sports management senior, is among the college students making the difficult choice between career advancement and paying the bills as they search for summer employment.

Jake Dreyer, an English junior, said he’s unsure if he’ll find an internship before he graduates, because he works nights and already has work experience.

Dreyer said he could only work unpaid if he didn’t have classes, so he’s limited to summer internships.

As the director of career development and placement at the Milano New School for Management and Urban Policy in New York, Carol Anderson is well-acquainted with the struggle at her school among students with poor economic backgrounds, who constitute a large percentage of the population.

Now more than ever, Anderson said, internship experience is crucial for recent graduates.

“The whole world is moving toward a competency-based model,” she said.

Students agree, according to a 2007 survey by Vault.com, a Web site that provides career and education information. Eighty-three percent of students said internships are “extremely important” to future career success. By April 2007, 61 percent reported having a summer internship lined up or planned to, according to the survey.

Anderson said paying interns varies among industries. The corporate sector is most likely to offer paid internships, while nonprofit business and government internships are largely unpaid.

According to the Vault.com survey, 29 percent of students have had an unpaid internship.

Anderson said students from wealthy colleges frequently get unpaid internships, which are unaffordable to those without financial backing.

But she added that if students are determined to find an internship, they’ll likely succeed if they are inventive and resourceful.

Double whammy

Many majors at the University, including nursing and food science, require students to find internships before they can graduate. Some require students to earn academic credit.

Holly Hatch, associate director of undergraduate studies, said the University doesn’t give credit for internship experience, but instead for the academic experience associated with it.

Students appreciate working for academic credit in some cases, like when they need credits to sustain scholarships or are already paying full time tuition, but it can pose difficulties.

Maher, who finances his own education, doesn’t mind working an unpaid internship for credit now, but doesn’t look forward to paying tuition this summer for four internship credits required of him to graduate.

He said paid internships aren’t widely available in his major.

“It’s kind of like a double whammy,” he said. “You’re paying for the credits that you’re taking, so, literally, you’re paying for an unpaid internship.”

But Maher said the benefits of an internship outweigh the negatives of being unpaid.

Anderson said the internships still allow students to “dip their toe in the water,” network with industry members, meet mentors and possibly land a job.

She said students should also consider the amount of exposure and education they’ll get from an employer and if the work deepens or broadens their skills.

As an intern at the WCCO television station last summer, journalism senior Alex Harkness said she learned more in three months there than she did in three semesters of classes.

“I never would have had to call someone who had lost a loved one in the (journalism) school, I never would have had to make a call at 9:30 at night to a police chief,” she said. “So it’s really amazing how much you learn and how steep the learning curve is.”

Harkness is now the assistant assignment editor for WCCO.

University aid

The University offers options for students struggling because of unpaid internships. Students can apply for certain grants and scholarships, such as the CLA Undergraduate Internship Grant.

Some University departments also allow students to have credits from summer internships apply to the following fall semester, Sara Nagel-Newberg, director of St. Paul Campus Career Center, said.