Does the Unpaid Internship Pay Off?

Cherry Xiao/TheTorch

As college students think about what to do with the rest of their lives, the benefits of internships come to mind. Yet, though these positions can ultimately lead to jobs, many young people find it difficult to take on an internship that does not pay.

Business Insider estimates that 75 percent of students at a four-year school take on some kind of internship, and 86 percent of recent and soon-to-be graduates are willing to work for free. In recent years, there has been debate among courts and employers as to the legality of the unpaid internship. Wendy Smiseck, director of Wittenberg career services, admits that it is a complicated issue.

“There are some fields and some organizations that they just don’t have the finances to do it,” said Smiseck. “If an employer can afford it, I definitely think they should. If they can’t, then that’s a negotiable issue.”

Smiseck observed that many industries simply expect graduates to participate in unpaid internships as part of the training process and that 65 percent of internships result in a job, either with that company or with another. Many Wittenberg students who have participated in internships agree that their unpaid experiences were worth their time.

“I feel that my resume was boosted from my work with both unpaid internships,” said senior Joshua Hayes, who interned with Clark County Prosecutor’s Office and Karen Duncan’s Reelection Campaign for Springfield City Commission. “While this was less money than I could have made if I had only worked at Witt, I was able to get contacts at the Prosecutor’s office, as well as relevant experience in the legal field.”

Despite the beneficial experience, many interns do admit that lack of pay can be difficult to a college lifestyle. Austin Holmes, class of 2015, admits that he had to make some adjustments for his internships with Invisible Children in 2009 and Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) in 2010.

“I usually could manage living on about $5 a day,” said Holmes. “And when that ran out I applied for a credit card and bought food that way. The experience was worth the debt.”

For some students, however, an unpaid internship is simply too far out of their budget. This was the case for senior Kelcie Webster who had a paid internship with the Springfield Chamber of Commerce.

“I don’t think I would have taken the internship if it wasn’t paid, or at least it would have taken some convincing for me to,” said Webster. “I don’t really rely on my parents too much. However, after working with the Chamber for a year and a half now I definitely think the work would have still been very beneficial for me.”

The United States is not alone in this tradition. According to Business Insider, 51 percent of internships in Germany are unpaid and 37 percent in the UK, compared to 50 percent in the United States. Many successful individuals have started as interns, including Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Steven Spielberg. As students make their career choices, whether to take an unpaid internship will be another decision to consider.

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