Increase in Unpaid Internships Affects College Students

GAINESVILLE—Grabbing coffee, emptying wastebaskets and sweeping floors.

These mindless tasks might be what some students have to list on their resumes upon completion of their dream internship.

While the economy has caused an increase in unpaid internships, college students have to be wary of certain internships that don't encompass a beneficial learning experience.

There is a growing suspicion among regulators of the U.S. Department of Labor that employers are using unpaid interns as a source for free labor, according to a recent article in the New York Times.

But most students are dependent upon the value internships can provide them for future employment opportunities.

"It's an essential piece to your education," said Robin Richards, chief executive officer of Internships.com. "The National Association of Colleges and Employers 2007-2008 survey showed that 67 percent of all students who get an internship are offered full-time employment from the company who gave them that internship."

Internships.com was launched eight weeks ago to connect students, educators and employers. It already has more than 180,000 student accounts registered with thousands of new accounts created daily, Richards said. And about 20,000 internships are already posted on the site with about 100 new internship postings a day.

Wayne Wallace, director of the Career Resource Center at the University of Florida said, "More and more employers all over the United States are engaging in internship activities and are using internships as a ‘pre-identification' for full-time hirers."

There are two types of internships: paid and unpaid, he said. Paid internships tend to be exclusively for high-demand majors, such as engineering. Unpaid internships are usually for nonprofit organizations, government agencies or employers that are not seeking out high-demand majors.

Wallace said he views internships not just as a part-time or temporary job, but a learning opportunity for the student in cooperation with an employer that's willing to provide on-the-job learning.

Kristin Retallick, the assistant director for experimental education at the Career Resource Center at UF, agrees and said the average undergraduate student completes one to three internships prior to graduation. Retallick helps students on job searching, interviewing, developing resumes and networking skills.

"It's becoming an expectation," she said. "It's a glimpse into the real world, where students can connect what they are learning in the classroom to a full-time job."

Yet some students may not be able to apply those skills through unpaid internships because they are doing tedious tasks that steer away from the learning experience, according to the New York Times article.

"What you do in the classroom may not always relate to what happens in the real world on the job," Wallace said.

But an unpaid intern should do more than empty out wastebaskets, get coffee or run errands for someone, he said.

"Take my word: There are people who are willing to take [intern's] labor and free resources," Wallace said. "I think a lot of the media industry is notorious for this, even though there are good media employers that provide learning."

He said students have to determine the value of these unpaid internships and that delivering coffee to important people isn't necessarily going to get them a leg up.

"College students are bright, though," Richards said. "I don't think [students] will do anything they don't think will create a better opportunity for them in the future through an internship. It's not a question of paid or unpaid, or if corporations are seeking to take unfair advantage. It's a question of democracy and free will."

He said students don't have to apply to those internships. For some, the opportunity or experience is not enough to do for free. But some students are doing unpaid internships for the experience and contacts.

The main problem festering among unpaid interns lies within the interpretation employers are expected to follow: the six criteria for an unpaid learner/trainee outlined by the Department of Labor.

The criteria is a requirement that employers must abide by for their internships to be considered unpaid.

The employer should receive no immediate advantage from the activities of a student because they should be training for the benefit of the student, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers' Web site. The training given to the intern should be similar to training that would be given in a vocational school.

"There's often gray area with these, but the main area is the student is gaining benefit, not the employer," Retallick said. "It shouldn't be balanced. The student should get much more than the employer, who should put a lot of time and effort into the intern."

But students need to do their job before going into an unpaid internship, too.

Students need to do research on the company they are interested in, ask good questions in the interview and get a grasp for what they want to get out of it, Retallick said.

And employers who offer unpaid internships will need to be more competitive to attract driven students who want a learning experience.

"Companies need to find more ways to compensate students, whether it's free housing, travel, free lunch or offering college credit," Retallick said. "Those things could offset the sacrifices students make."

 

Danielle Logan
University of Florida