This is part of a series of articles examining the impact of unpaid internships on students of limited means. To see the rest of this week's issue of Statement Magazine, see here.
Along with academics and extracurriculars, internships are critical for students to gain workforce skills and launch their career. Naturally, this sometimes creates a problematic dynamic where students want employment more than employers need student interns, which could lead to students paying to do work. With around 40 percent of national internship opportunities being unpaid, it is sometimes difficult for students to accept such opportunities as their financial burden can sometimes outweigh their benefits.
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, hiring rates for students who chose to complete an unpaid internship are only 2 percent higher than those who did not acquire an internship at all, apparently offering only a small benefit for students who took an unpaid internship. This contrasts with another study that found that 60 percent of employers expressed a preference for applicants who have had internships.
According to the Department of Labor’s “primary beneficiaries test," unpaid internships should only be legal if it can be deemed that the student is the primary beneficiary of the intern-employer relationship. This is measured by comparing the unpaid work to classroom activities, seeing that the student is compensated via academic credit and making sure there was no understanding between the student and employer that the opportunity would be paid.
Nonetheless, a 2014 ProPublica investigation found that the Department of Labor doesn’t aggressively pursue complaints about wage violations when the internships are unpaid, as the department only pursues exploitative employers after complaints have been filed rather than proactively investigating them.
That said, employment in some fields is so competitive that unpaid internships are increasingly necessary, particularly in journalism and public policy. Between 2016 and 2026, journalism is projected to have a 2 percent decline in job opportunities.
On campus, University of Michigan offices such as the University Career Center and the Opportunity Hub attempt to facilitate ways for students to take advantage of unpaid internships with a vast array of programming. Joelle Fundaro Randall, an assistant director at the Career Center, said that though students may be insistent about getting unpaid internships, there are other opportunities that offer the same rewards.
“If I am connecting with a student and they are really focused on the internship, I say let’s pause for a second, there are other ways of getting these opportunities to help you develop your skills outside of a formal internship,” Randall said. “Sometimes there is research on campus, student groups that do a lot of different things and are part of a community. Those skills are transferable into the workplace.”
Outside of coaching, the Career Center offers resources for students to find paid internships or to acquire the means to be able to financially accept an unpaid position. For example, the Public Service Intern Program coaches students on how to attain opportunities in Washington D.C. Alongside PSIP, they also offer the Applebaum Internship which allows students to find opportunities in Detroit, and the Samo Alajbegović Fellowship for students working in the countries on the Adriatic Sea.
The Career Center also invites every student who is registered through the Office of the Registrar, including master's degree and Ph.D. students, to their online employment database, Handshake. Fundaro Randall expressed that the Career Center has about 3,700 paid internships in their system.
“I think the biggest piece is students not knowing where to look for internships, so when we coach students, if they mention that they are low SES (socioeconomic status) or any of those pieces, we coach them on how to find these opportunities,” Fundaro Randall said.
The Hub partners with LSA Scholarships to help students on a need-based basis and they also, like the Career Center, have drop-in coaching hours in which students have conversations with coaches that have resources like scholarships, stipends and knowledge of other opportunities at hand.
Yet, as the testimonies of University students Zach Tingley, Monica Kim and Lydia Murray show, sometimes students’ interests are in fields where very few paid internships are offered, and the assistance of a scholarship from the University isn’t always sufficient.
According to CNBC, an unpaid internship could cost up to $12,986 and students with insufficient funds might be forced to obtain a second job or go into debt to be able to afford these opportunities.
On the other hand, LSA junior Taylor Lind talks positively about her experience with an unpaid internship and the LSA Internship Scholarship.
“It was the summer after my freshman year I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to work in environmental advocacy and I didn’t know how,” Lind said. “I thought that working for government might be a good option, so I reached out to my local city government. I wanted to see if they had any opportunities but I didn’t see anything posted so I had to cold contact and I did it with the help of the Hub since I was an employee there at the time.”
When she was finally hired by her local government for the internship position and they told her it would be an unpaid opportunity, she decided to apply for the LSA Internship Scholarship and was granted $1,500 to cover her expenses while working for her local government in California and living at home.
“Although I am not necessarily going into government, I learned so much about how the environmental efforts can be integrated and the barriers that they face," Lind said. "I really value the knowledge that I gained from it and … The fact that it was unpaid (didn’t take away from the experience).”
However, a common theme of confusion and misinformation came out while talking to representatives of both the Career Center and the LSA Opportunity Hub. Lind expressed that she had contacts in LSA Scholarships while she was applying and suggested that, though she isn’t sure, other students that don’t have that may have some confusion in the application process.
There are differing opinions regarding unpaid internships. Some companies view them as necessary to their vitality as organizations, but some others, such as Conde Nast, are known to use their interns as unskilled and free labor while giving them almost no recognition for their work or lasting skills or connections after their short internship experiences.
Despite the disagreement on whether opportunities should be paid or unpaid, a 2012 study shows that 55 percent of students had a form of internship or co-op experience during their years in school. These rates more than double the numbers a similar study found two decades ago, according to ProPublica. As internships become more and more important tools for students who are trying to break into industries, some may be forced to go to extreme measures to get these opportunities.