Internships provide valuable experience despite downsides
April 11, 2011 —
A little on-the-job experience can go a long way when it comes to finding a career. That’s why students look for internships in their field: to get the kind of handson learning and experience they just can’t get in the classroom.
While common sense tells us that most students would prefer paid internships with large companies, most students find themselves working unpaid internships for small, local employers.
The debate over paid and unpaid internships comes down to what is fair for students, especially when fields such as engineering, nursing and even journalism require them for graduation. The national conversation involves students, teachers, administrators, legislators, bureaucrats, lawyers and employers.
Currently, the U.S. Department of Labor has six criteria for unpaid internships, some vaguely defined. For example, the second criterion states “The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern,” but how does a bureaucrat define, quantify and compare “benefit”?
Either way, paid or unpaid, students learn about their career preferences and real-world workplace demands. If they are fortunate, undergrads can get a foot in the door or letters of recommendation. Even if an intern doesn’t receive a job offer from the company he or she worked for, networking counts for something. Students have someone in the industry to vouch for their work ethic and skills.
Students should go for the paid internships if they can get them. It’s reasonable to suggest that paid internships receive the most applicants. But when the majority of internships offered today are unpaid, students shouldn’t hang their hopes on obtaining a paycheck on top of their credits and work experience.
Affluent families may have certain advantages: helping their children defray the associated cost of an unpaid internship or even paying a marketing service to find placement with a paying, high-profile company. Some argue that public universities should offer assistance to students struggling to pay for meals, gasoline and vehicle maintenance costs that arise in addition to the cost of credit hours.
Unpaid internships are still better than no internships at all. If a student chooses not to take an internship without pay, there is always another student willing to do so. When they enter the job market, the student with the internship experience will have the advantage of real onthe- job experiences and letters of recommendation. Whom would you hire?
When employers see internships on graduates’ resumes, they aren’t asking if the applicants were paid for the work. Rather, they’re asking what they did and what they learned. It’s the experience that is more meaningful than small, short-term earnings.