Students in college have one common goal: employment upon graduation. With an increasing number of young adults attending universities and applying for the same jobs, it takes more than just a diploma to be considered for hire.
This is where the unpaid internship comes in.
Employers have the opportunity to hire college students and graduates as interns but they have no obligation to pay them or even hire them as paid employees after their internships are over. Internships introduce students to the field they may want to pursue, provide them with valuable work experience and give them contacts to whom they can refer later on. It's a win-win situation, right?
Internships have now become so essential that they have been demoted from opportunity to requirement. Some employers have taken advantage of this fact by treating their interns as hired employees by giving them duties beyond their expected requirements or using them in place of a paid worker.
The U.S. Department of Labor states that in order to justify not paying an intern, the job requirements should be as follows: the intern cannot displace a regular employee, the intern is not entitled to a job at the end of their internship and the employer should gain no immediate advantage from the duties of the intern. The last part makes little sense; it essentially says that the less the intern does, the more legal the internship is. There's little room to find the happy medium between providing valuable work experience and working within the labor laws.
As a student of Northeastern University, a co-op school that requires students to take semesters off to do full-time work in their field of study, I know that unpaid internships are inevitable before I graduate. Though I haven't begun my own co-op process, I've heard stories from my friends about companies they have worked with that had them work beyond what they should have. Massive amounts of unpaid overtime, running errands for their bosses and having no mentor interaction are only some of the complaints I've heard. Naturally, I am a little apprehensive about what is to come.
I've been lucky enough to have an internship this summer that provides me with mentoring experience in a field that I want to learn more about as well as flexibility to work my schedule around another job. Even so, I worry that my next experience will be far different from this one.
If a company cannot afford to or does not want to pay interns, that is fine. However, employers need to take into account that students, while they do need internships, also need to be able to afford unpaid internships. Unfortunately, unpaid internships usually exclude those who can't work for free. Because of this, employers of unpaid interns need to offer the option of allowing their interns to find a paid job to supplement the internship.
Interns: if something isn't working, it is up to you to have a dialogue with your employer about your concerns. If you can't afford to work for free, ask for a schedule that would allow you to get a part-time job. If you think the work you are doing is more that what your job description stated, ask your boss to give you more tasks that align with your expectations.
Employers: create an inviting environment that allows your interns to be comfortable enough to approach you with any concerns they may have. Be open to their suggestions and responsive to their needs. Also, provide your intern with meaningful work and mentoring experience.
With the price of school tuition skyrocketing, every student wants a job with a great salary. However, the job market is so competitive that a university diploma and a good GPA aren't enough to put you ahead of other applicants. Job experience, multiple references and good contacts stand out the most on resumes. So maybe that dream internship can't actually pay you right now -- take the job anyway. It'll get you further than you think.
Erin Carmichael is a 2012 graduate of Park City High School and a student at Northeastern University. She is a summer intern for The Park Record.