Ailts: You’re worth more than an unpaid internship

Unpaid internships aren’t always great learning experiences, and might even make you less employable.

Ellen Ailts

“What am I going to do this summer?” 

The question looms for students this time of year. As we near the middle of spring semester, the season of trying to plan a productive summer is upon us. An internship might seem the ideal option for those without much experience in their preferred field. It offers an opportunity to figure out career goals, network, learn experientially and we know that employers look for it. It can feel like a lot of pressure to land an internship because this kind of “relevant work” seems like the next logical step. Job-seeking is increasingly competitive and any way to gain an advantage over other applicants sounds appealing, right?

The problem is, 46.5 percent of internships students take are unpaid, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers in their 2014 report. College students are notoriously broke, and many, if not most, can’t realistically afford to labor for three months without compensation.  Some unpaid internships even ask students to pay for college credit for legality purposes. While unpaid internships can lead to gains for students in terms of experience and career preparedness, hiring rates for unpaid vs. paid interns vary; according to a study by NACE, the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 63 percent of paid interns received a job offer, while only 37 percent of unpaid interns did. (Hiring rates were at 35 percent for those with no internship experience whatsoever.)

The most important thing about summer work is that it’s valuable in some way, and this might not be the case for the unpaid intern. Another NACE study found that unpaid interns spent more time on clerical work, while paid interns were given more professional duties. 

Of course, internship experiences vary, and some might find an unpaid experience that seems promising. In that case, you might look to the University of Minnesota for help. There are funding opportunities, like grants and scholarships, available through career services, but the opportunities differ depending upon your college. CFANS, for example, has an experiential learning requirement, and therefore there is a greater emphasis placed on funding unpaid internships within that college; funding is more limited for students of colleges without an experiential learning requirement. For students who have previously considered an unpaid internship to be totally impossible and unrealistic, this is a viable option and worth a shot, especially considering that not all available slots for particular grants are always filled.

If you don’t, or can’t, find an internship experience that suits you, there’s no need to be stressed. Spend your summer months working a good old-fashioned summer job and hustle on your own time. Volunteer, travel, learn a language — there’s much experience and value to be gained elsewhere. 

The bottom line is, students should seriously consider the costs and benefits of a potential unpaid internship — what will you be getting out of this experience, really? Will the work be meaningful? Is it something you’re truly interested in doing? It’s up to you to make the most of your summer, and that might mean deciding that you’re worth more than an unpaid internship can offer.