Unpaid Internships: Fast Track to your Dream Job or Glorified Slave Labor?

This guest post is contributed by Katheryn Rivas.

So after getting being accepted to your Dream University–after painstakingly editing college applications, obsessing over grades, finding extra-curricular activities that sparked your interest AND would somehow impress a college admissions committee–you thought it was all over, right? Once accepted, you’d think the next logical step is to finish your degree and get a job.

But, especially in today’s economic climate, in which employers are consistently scaling down their college grad hires, a full-time job is one more step away. Welcome to the world of internships.

Even though internships are largely unpaid, applications for what are considered absolutely necessary precursors to scarce jobs are on the rise. That means more competition for positions that will force you to pay for work, and not the other way around.

A recent Chicago Tribune article describes students struggling to raise funds for their internships, sometimes with the help of their parents.  Two internship placement services, The University of Dreams and The Washington Center, are charging as much as $9000 just to help students FIND internships. That, and the cost of living, means some students–who have traditionally worked service related jobs as waiters during summer months– will now be forced to run into serious debt, or miss out on ostensible opportunities.

The value of an unpaid internship, however, goes without saying. Even though we’re all familiar with the coffee-fetching, copy-machine-running clichés, many internships do provide some real, hands-on experience in fields as varied as publishing, marketing, software engineering, and teaching.

An internship gives students the opportunity to get a taste of a prospective career before they dive head-first into a full-time job they may not enjoy.  Since internal hiring is a favored practice among employers, the only way for a recent college grad to work for certain companies is to have worked within the company first. So even if you are fetching coffee, you’ll benefit from being considered an “internal” hire. In fact, an acquaintance of mine did just that–after two unpaid summer internships with Sports Illustrated magazine, he now has full-time job as a sports reporter in SI’s New York City office.

Although unpaid internships seem like an inherently unfair practice, universities often offer stipends to fund internships, and internship placement services do have a variety of need- and merit-based scholarships. What’s more, unpaid internships can offer students an opportunity to learn the difficult lesson of budgeting and living independently.

To get a better idea of what it’s like to be an intern, read former college student Steve Kent’s harrowing but entertaining account of his unpaid internship experience.

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