Thursday, April 26, 2012

unpaid is unfair

This spring I applied for eight different internships. I spent hours online searching for possible job opportunities in the journalism field. I visited my university’s Director of Career Development, talked with my adviser and networked with several of my professors. And here I am a week before finals with one single offer: $2,500 for 14 weeks of full-time work answering phones, returning emails, making copies and occasionally writing stories.
Though I need the experience to bulk up my resume and effectively compete in such a competitive job market after college, I can’t take it. Not because I don’t want to, but because I can’t afford to.

And I’m not the only one. Thousands of students in their final summer of college will be flipping burgers, cleaning out dressing rooms and babysitting children because they simply don’t have the money to work for free at an unpaid internship. 

Simply put, the current internship system puts students from lower income families at a disadvantage, forcing those students to choose between digging deeper into debt and forfeiting valuable work experience. 

For many students, summer becomes a valuable time to make a dent in the substantial amount of money borrowed for college. According to the College Board, the average student graduates with about $28,000 in personal debt. Associate vice president of enrollment Kim Eldridge said the average John Brown University student falls slightly below the national average with about $21,000 in personal debt. 

But even if students take advantage of scholarships and financial aid and escape the debt, the price of taking an unpaid internship still hangs out of reach. When you calculate the price of housing, food, gas and utilities, a single summer can cost a student up to $4,000. The student ends up paying a significant fee just to work for free. 

Furthermore, many unpaid internships require the students to receive college credit for their work. The irony is some students do not even need the credit to graduate, yet they must pay their institute for those hours. According to, a management consulting company that conducts the largest internship research in the country, 71 percent of students required to receive college credit had to pay for those credits. 

On the other hand, summer also becomes a valuable time for students to gain experience in their field of study. The number one advantage to the unpaid internship is its ability to get you a job. It looks good on your resume. It teaches you to succeed in the work place. And it gets your foot in the door of a company. The National Association of Colleges and Employers reported employers converted about 60 percent of the class of 2011 interns into full-time hires, a record high. 

Director of Career Development at JBU Chris Confer believes another important advantage of the unpaid internship is its ability to build your network. 

“Eighty percent of people will hire who they know rather than taking a chance on someone they don’t know,” he stated. 

With such a high statistic, its crucial students get into their prospective fields and make an impression. 

Finally, the unpaid internship becomes important for students to simply graduate. According to, 60 percent of students reported internships were now mandatory for their university. At JBU, at least 28 majors offered for a Bachelor of Science degree require the student complete an internship. These include degrees in the arts, journalism, broadcasting and human services, which are the industries with the largest percentage of interns reporting their positions were unpaid. 

Students like me all across the nation are feeling pulled in opposite directions. On one hand, my scholarships are running out and I need to make money this summer just to complete my education. On the other hand, what will it matter if I don’t graduate with the experience I need to land a job? 

I believe there are two solutions to this problem. The first requires that all internships be paid. Under the Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standards Act, very few internships even qualify to be unpaid. The act outlines six criteria to define an unpaid intern, including that the student receive training similar to a vocational school, the student does not displace a regular employee, and the employer receives no immediate advantage. 

Internships need to be regulated closely to make sure they adhere to all of the criteria, and both employers and students need to hold each other accountable to these standards. 

The second solution would be the availability of scholarships by universities and the government for students seeking unpaid internships. The money awarded by these scholarships would pay for the students housing and food while they worked their internship. 

Unfortunately, neither of these solutions will be in place by the time I enter into my final summer of college. So I have no other choice but to take the hit to my resume and apply for that minimum-wage job. I may graduate debt-free, but I’ll also graduate with a serious disadvantage in the job market to my fellow classmates.

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