Monday, March 18, 2013

Unpaid Internships

As I began my quest to secure 300 hours of internships before June 2014 graduation, I will be completely honest with you, my first thought was MONEY. Are these internships paid, or unpaid? Hourly or stipend? The most important question was whether these internships I've been looking for are paid or unpaid, because, let's face it, how else can I afford rent this summer otherwise?

I don't consider myself a money-centered woman, or very materialistic for that matter. But, as you may or may not know, Zach and I have struggled financially during our first year here in Seattle since moving here from the midwest last June. An understandable condition when you consider the fact that we moved out here with practically just the clothes on our backs, no connections, and no jobs. It was a risk we were willing to take for both adventure and personal growth.

So as I rifle through business cards, information sheets, and websites upon websites of student affairs graduate internships, I can't help but have money on my mind. If I'm working so many hours at an unpaid internship, well when will I find the free time to get another hourly PT job in order to keep us afloat?

I know for a fact that there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of other college students and college grads on the internship search with the same concern on their mind. It has made me ponder what their impact is on industries, the economy, and the college student him/herself. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of opinion articles and research studies out there that cover the concept of the internship. A great many of them support unpaid internships, but plenty others disagree with the lack of ethics and accessibility surrounding them.

I personally do not support the idea of unpaid internships, in particular unpaid internships that are 40 hours per week. There is a big difference between a college student interning unpaid just 3 to 14 hours per week to obtain unique career-related experiences and the recent college graduate interning unpaid for 40 hours per week with hardly anything to show for it afterwards.

Let me back up here and clearly indicate that I do understand the importance, value, and unique offerings of unpaid internships. I had an unpaid internship myself during my undergraduate studies. For about 4 months I worked 7 hours per week as an event planner and receptionist for a local mental health clinic.  There, I had the opportunity to network around my college town, gain valuable insight to the mental health field, and interact with seasoned mental health professionals. This internship was a required facet of my Bachelor of Science degree in Community Psychology, and I am glad that it was included in my curriculum. The hours were reasonable, the experience was well worth it, and I learned more than I can ever express.

Undoubtably I will be holding unpaid internships in my future. Right now I am waiting to hear back from a few potential student affairs internship positions for this summer, none of which are paid positions.

I guess my point in all of this is: I do not personally think unpaid internships are good for the individual or the industries they permeate. I think all companies and institutions should value their interns enough to pay them, even if only a stipend. It's more than a matter of monetary compensation for time and effort, but it's also a matter of respect and gratitude. Skyrocketing tuition costs should also be taken into account. With students picking up summer jobs and part-time jobs to offset rising costs of college, where will they find time to pick up an unpaid internship?

An opinion article I came across today reinforced my own opinion on unpaid internships. The article, titled "Unpaid Internships Reinforce American Inequality" (by Clara Ritger) discussed the author's opinion that because students from wealthy families can afford unpaid internships, they are put at a further advantage in the working world than their low-income counterparts, who might not have the option. This is yet another example of institutional/system discrimination that gives the wealthy a leg-up and the low-SES a disadvantage.

It was from Ritger's article where I found out that in 2010 the Obama administration announced plans to crack down on unpaid internships. I wonder where that goal has gone? I certainly haven't heard it discussed by our government recently.

It makes me wonder why there aren't scholarships for unpaid internship opportunities. If the industries and institutions absolutely must continue to offer unpaid internships, there should be opportunities to fund those who wish to pursue them! Just like scholarships, students should be able to apply for aid if they want to accept a rigorous, and/or out-of-state unpaid internship. Wouldn't that be a good idea? Maybe that's my calling. Maybe I'll do something with that someday. I'll let it brew in my mind for a while and come back to it.

I also took a gander at an article titled the The Impact Unpaid Internships Have on the Labor Market from There, I found a section on Best Practices for Internships and I'm determined to keep these in mind as I am pursuing my own internships:

  • "The student's experience with the employer should emphasize unique job or career related activities that the student could not otherwise obtain outside the specific internship.
  • The employer should inform company managers and supervisors of the objectives of the internship program and the presence of the intern.
  • The employer should provide a company and worksite orientation that clarifies internal rules, operating procedures, and internship expectations." 
These might seem quite obvious, but I think they are valuable and applicable to any internship in any field. 

As I continue to evolve my own interest in career education and planning, internship discernment is something I will also continue to think about and consider. 

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