Published May 27, 2011
Internships are touted as the best way for college students to get their feet wet in the labor market, but the number of unpaid internships has grown significantly over the years igniting a debate over the legality of the free labor.
Despite some improvements, college graduates still face a difficult job market: the unemployment rate for 20-24 year olds was 14.9% in April, much higher than the national average of 9%. To give them an edge on the increasing competition for internships, some students are settling for unpaid internships to gain necessary experience.
“You definitely want to look at the fact that it doesn’t have monetary currency, but it definitely has currency for your career in the future,” says J.T. O’Donnell, career strategist and author of Careerealism: The Smart Approach to a Satisfying Career. “If you can identify ways in which you’re going to leverage that internship directly in your career in the future, then it’s a good match.”
However, not all unpaid internships are created equal, here’s what you need to know before signing up to work for free this summer:
Do Your Research
Before committing to any kind of internship, the experts advise that students identify what they want out of the experience, what Career coach and counselor Jeff Neil calls their “job target.”
He recommends students list what industries and job positions they are interested in for the future and look for internship opportunities that will give them experience in those fields.
“Then you can assess, would this internship give me the skills I need to go get that kind of job? Would it give me the credibility I need to get my target position? Would it possibly give me connections I need to leverage a paid position for my targeted job?”
Once a student has narrowed in on an internship, he or she should talk to the supervisor to make sure both parties are coming with the same expectations.
“What I recommend to students is that they take the initiative and work with their manager to identify and document what projects will be completed, what value will be added to the employer organization, what training or skills development will be gained by the student, and also what "artifacts" will be gathered at the end of the internship,” says Jenny Floren, founder and CEO of Experience.com.
A well-respected, unpaid internship in a student’s prospective field can be a stepping stone in the business world where experience often trumps education.
“The problem when you graduate school is that while you have some education, you have no real world experience and most of us don’t have credibility in that industry,” says Neil. “By taking an unpaid or paid internship, it gives people insider status in that industry.”
Interning free of charge doesn’t mean students can’t take advantage of establishing connections and expanding their social and professional networks that can be used to land a job in the future.
“Networking contacts gained through internships are an extremely valuable component, so don't sequester yourself at your desk or eat lunch alone,” says Floren. “Make every effort to interact with as many people as possible--every contact counts.”
Students interning at a big-name company might be able to use its status to their advantage. A company’s reputation from a past internship can propel your hiring chances with a new company, says O’Donnell.
“If you worked at a very high profile, well-known company, oftentimes that would be enough for you to get the interview over another student,” she says. “You want to align yourself with them because when you go to push out your resume, people are going to say let’s get them in here because they were selected by that company, so they must be talent.”
The experts agree that taking an unpaid internship can be worthwhile for students if they gain valuable industry knowledge and experience.
The Labor Department and many state agencies are cracking down on companies taking advantage of free labor. The Labor Department identifies six criteria that a for-profit business must adhere to when hiring unpaid interns.
Many students can’t afford to take on unpaid work forcing them to pass on an opportunity that could really bolster their resumes.
Students must verify the job description before committing to an unpaid internship; why commit to doing busy work like filing for free and getting no industry experience when there are temp jobs willing to pay.
“Ask the company—what skills am I going to develop? Who’s going to supervise me? Who’s going to mentor me and hold them to fulfilling their obligations,” says Neil.
O’Donnell says she has seen cases where students took unpaid internship with the notion that the company would eventually take them on as a full-time employee, only that never happens.
“It almost gets hard to leave because the longer time they spend in an unpaid internship, the more they want it to pay off as a real job,” she says. “They feel like they’ve invested so much, why do I want to leave now?”
To avoid getting stuck, the experts say that you should decide for yourself how many months of the unpaid internship is worth your time. Neil suggests sticking around for three to six months to see what pans out, but to continue looking for other opportunities.
“From day one, I would have a second full-time job, and that would be looking for work,” he says. “As an employee, the flip side of that coin is you have the opportunity to leave and pursue better opportunities. I know people feel bad about it, but those are the unwritten rules of the work world.”