Unpaid internships worth more than cash

It’s springtime, which means there’s one thing on students’ minds: securing a coveted summer internship.

In today’s fiercely competitive job market, internship experience has become a necessity for students as opposed to a differentiating advantage.

For many students, unpaid internships are the only option.

Though the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track the number of unpaid internships, a survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that nearly 50 percent of internships held by graduating seniors in 2011 were unpaid.

Unpaid internships can be far from perfect, but they are often a necessary stepping-stone to better opportunities and, ultimately, a job.

To summarize requirements under the Fair Labor Standards Act, unpaid internships must benefit the intern through training, the company cannot derive an immediate advantage from the intern’s activities and the internship should be considered an educational experience.

To make up for the lack of compensation, unpaid interns typically go through the tedious process of registering to receive college credit for their internship, where they end up actually paying to work.

So why are unpaid internships worth it?

Full-time and even paid internship employers typically look for candidates with skill sets obtained through previous work experience.

Working for free might seem rough, but if a student has had a blank résumé since high school graduation, chances are that landing a paid summer internship or full-time job would be extremely difficult.

Though they might not provide monetary compensation, unpaid internships provide value in other ways. They offer an inside view of an industry, allow students to grow their professional network and provide applicable skills that students might not learn in the classroom.

My first internship at a wealth management firm was unpaid and far from glamorous. Though I did spend time making copies and stuffing envelopes, I also made valuable connections within the firm, learned basic financial analysis and research skills and determined that wealth management wasn’t the right career for me.

There are scholarships that provide students who pursue certain kinds of unpaid internships with support. For example, the USC Dream Dollars program awards stipends for students pursuing internships in the government and non-profit fields.

Universities and government organizations should look to expand these scholarship opportunities to as many fields as possible, particularly in industries such as entertainment and journalism, where unpaid internships are the norm.

In recent years, the number of illegal internships has risen across the board. According to a 2010 article by The New York Times, violations by employers are widespread, but it’s hard to crack down when interns are fearful of filing complaints.

Though the government should certainly implement more specific, stringent legal requirements to reduce the prevalence of illegal unpaid internships, students can also take their own initiative.

To avoid a potentially miserable unpaid internship experience, students should research the opportunity thoroughly beforehand. Through a simple LinkedIn search, they can contact past interns to get direct feedback on the internship experience.

Students should also maintain an open dialogue during the interview process and ask interviewers candid questions about the day-to-day tasks they’ll be responsible for during the internship.

Unpaid internships don’t have to be characterized by making coffee and becoming a copy slave; there are many out there that provide valuable work experiences. Students should do everything they can to vet the internship beforehand, maximize their experience on the job and extract as much value as possible out of the internship by establishing connections.

Students should look at unpaid internships as a first step toward paid internship and employment opportunities. With my first internship under my belt, I was able to secure a more competitive, paid internship the following summer by showing my employer I was dedicated, willing to learn and already familiar with the workplace.

Government entities could certainly do better to create more specific compliance standards, and more scholarship opportunities for unpaid interns are definitely needed. But if students do their homework, take initiative on the job and view their internship as a learning opportunity rather than a burden, they’ll find that unpaid internships are often a worthy sacrifice.


Jasmine Ako is a senior majoring in business administration.