Amber Lauder, Opinions Editor

Internships, both paid and unpaid, are beneficial to students hoping to get jobs post-college. More often than not though, unpaid internships are considered the undesired internships among students. Internships of any kind are a tool to get our foot in the door of our desired field. Why? The experience.

First and foremost, while we are more than adequately taught in our major, there is only so much real career experience we can expect to gain in the classroom. We can discuss and replicate situations in a similar style, but nothing matches the experience one can attain in a professional, working world setting. After all, that is what most college students are shooting for once they graduate.

Similarly, if all an employer had to go by in an interview was your college transcript and a list of your campus activities, it would be very hard to determine if you qualified for the position. Exceptional grades, Greek life involvement and sports display intelligence, variety and motivation to employers, but they do not show your value to their company. Real working experience shows ability and potential in the field. That’s what they are looking to find.

So, we turn to internships. Many of which are unpaid. However, these internships – while an authentic working experience – should have educational value because they are uncompensated.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor released a fact sheet which clarified the educational requirements for unpaid internships at private companies to prevent the exploitation of interns (nonprofit organizations and government agencies are allowed to legally classify their interns as volunteers). These included requiring that the internship benefits the intern more than the employer and ensuring that the company provides an educational training environment, among others. This is particularly important for career fields that require internships to be unpaid.

In turn, some companies searching for interns have adjusted their internship posting and programs entirely in order comply with these laws.

According to Intern Bridge, a college-recruiting consulting and research firm, just under 20 percent of career and internship professionals at colleges surveyed have noticed employers take down their posting since the Department of Labor released the 2010 fact sheet, presumably because they did not meet the necessary standards expected by the department and would therefore be illegal internships.

Of course, despite the changes made by the Labor Department, there is still room for exploitation at the hands of the company.

“My first internship position was disappointing. In fact, it wasn’t much of an internship,” said Jessica Zimmerman, a former general practitioner’s intern in Broward County. “Instead of field work, I was driving to get my boss bagels every morning and cleaning her office until my shift was over. I didn’t get any of the experience I was expecting when I took the position.”

To avoid this, my advice is to know exactly what you are getting into. Ask potential supervisors what your duties will entail if you do decide to move forward with the internship. Ensure that you will be learning from your experience as an unpaid intern and completing tasks related to your field, not just fetching coffee for your higher ups.

If you know beforehand what will be presented to you, as well as what will be expected of you as an unpaid intern, you will most likely not be in an exploitative position in your internship.

Keep in mind that it is completely voluntary. No one is forcing you to intern for free. Look for another internship that suits your particular needs if yours turned out not to be what you were hoping for. But that responsibility is in your hands.

Rather than thinking of an internship as a job, think of it as an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to network, an opportunity to learn more about your prospective field and an overall opportunity to obtain the experience that will – over time – get you to that future career. Don’t challenge or feel negatively about companies for offering unpaid internships rather than paid internships. Instead, thank them for giving us the opportunity to potentially have the experience that is so necessary in the real world.


Photo Courtesy of Tamaki Sono via Creative Commons