Students should have the freedom to do unpaid internships
by Sandy Malone
That good internship on your resume can be the difference between getting a job interview or not. And the competition to get internships is brutal, because students really, really want them.
Unfortunately, the number of internship opportunities available has dropped over the past five years, as “unpaid” internships have found themselves under regulatory, legislative, and legal scrutiny. Critics say that unpaid internships take unfair advantage of the participants.
The conundrum here is that many undergraduate and new graduate students WANT unpaid internships if they can’t get paid ones. They would rather work for free – to gain the experience and the lines on their resume – than not have an internship opportunity at all.
In a survey commissioned by The Fund for American Studies (TFAS) in February 2017, and released in April, 89 percent of the people surveyed felt that “College students who wish to do unpaid internships should be able to have that opportunity.”
But Steve Slattery, Executive Vice President of TFAS, an educational non-profit organization that has placed thousands of students in D.C. internships since 1967, says that many of the most prestigious entities have dropped their unpaid internship programs after years of enthusiastic participation.
For example, Joe Starrs, director of TFAS’s Institute on Political Journalism (IPJ), reported that one television network news outlet used to take 15 or more unpaid interns every summer. Now, they’re offering three paid internships, and no unpaid internships. This means 12 fewer journalism students have an opportunity to learn the trade at that network.
Some frame the requirement that businesses pay interns as a matter of fairness. But is it fair to take away unpaid internship opportunities from students who need them?
I did an unpaid internship at Campaigns & Elections Magazine through IPJ immediately after graduation in 1996. The magazine hired me full time before my internship ended, giving me my first real job in journalism. My next stop, less than a year later, was the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition. If not for my unpaid internship opportunity where I learned and proved my worth, I might well have ended up living my mother’s nightmare of using my journalism degree from Ohio State to write obituaries on the midnight shift at a Midwest newspaper. And that’s if I was lucky.
“Because Americans fundamentally believe in freedom of opportunity, and they are willing to start at the bottom to cultivate their future success,” Slattery says. “People looking to launch a career know that the kind of experience you get in an internship is so much more valuable in the long term than an hourly wage,” Slattery says.
There are paid internships, and there are unpaid internships. But whether you get paid isn’t necessarily the deal breaker for most applicants. These kids are looking for results. They want internships with companies that have proven placement records with their interns. Smart applicants ask where the company’s former interns ended up working after graduation. Good intern supervisors will know the answer to that question.
Most paid internships don’t pay well anyway. Interns are lucky if their stipend covers room and board. Which is why the financial compensation for a useless internship pales in comparison to starving and sweating at an unpaid internship that lets you publish your writing, create a new app, or work side-by-side with a brilliant and successful professional in your chosen career field.
Who gets hurt if you do away with unpaid internships? All the students desperate to have something on their resume that will get them an interview with a potential employer after graduation.
For years, I mentored young women who wanted to learn the wedding planning business on a Caribbean island. I received hundreds of applications for every position. After we’d messaged all the rejected applicants to thank them, I’d receive long emails from some, begging me to allow them to come intern for me in an unpaid position. I even had a few offer to pay me to let them work a few weddings. That’s how desperate they are to get some on-the-ground experience for their portfolios and resumes.
It’s a Catch-22. The desire to be “fair” and the need for opportunity clash badly here. Fewer unpaid internship opportunities means that much more competition for the coveted paid-intern slots.
The need for skilled labor in the workforce doesn’t decrease just because students have fewer opportunities to become prepared before graduation. It simply means companies must do more training of new grads who may not stay long in their first jobs, instead of hiring former interns with a proven track record. And students will have a much harder time getting interviews with less practical experience on their resumes.
Article originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.