Guest column: Unpaid internships still worth it

Erin Lengas

Ask any college student and most will admit that getting a job after graduation is on his or her mind. This conundrum constantly lingers in the back of the mind, but it should really be at the forefront. However, before students can even think about a future job, they must gain experience, usually through an internship.

For already broke college students, spending a semester at an unpaid internship is difficult to accept. How can companies expect students to have the ability or desire to give up an income for such a significant amount of time?

These situations cause some to wonder if the companies that offer internships are taking advantage of students’ desperateness for experience by refusing to pay for their labor, or if they are instead doing students a favor by taking them in and grooming them for a future career. While I like to think it’s the latter, future interns need to realize that these companies aren’t completely selfless. Employers might welcome interns to avoid expenses for payroll and benefits that they would have to provide for actual employees. Meanwhile, the companies pass internships off as a necessary experience for students.

But the high learning potential, connections and resumé benefits that internships offer make the free labor worthwhile. Prospective employees need such experience to compete in the job market. Suffering a little now will pay off later when sights are set on a real paying job.

Some companies, fair or not, pressure interns into performing menial tasks and jumping through hoops. Students will do whatever they’re told to reach star intern status. However, while many interns are eventually hired by the companies they intern for, that’s not always the case, no matter how many hoops they jumped through.

This shouldn’t discourage anyone from performing his or her best and impressing an employer, though. The company might have a job opening in the future that would be a perfect fit. At the very least, if interns impress they can earn an influential letter of recommendation.

It’s never too early to begin the search for an internship. Sometimes, earlier is even better. As a sophomore, I have applied to positions for the upcoming summer. Because I am still in school, I don’t need to stress about being offered a job when I am finished. I am solely looking for a place to contribute the skills I already have while learning new ones.

In other words, I want experience. I recognize it as something valuable for my future.

While the internship system is not without flaws, most positions do have the potential to turn out more highly skilled, professional and experienced interns.

If a student receives an internship in an industry they are excited about, it should feel less like a missed opportunity to make bank and more like an opportunity to grow.

Department of Labor regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act state that all internships in the “for-profit” sector will usually be considered employment (subject to minimum wage laws) unless they meet specific guidelines. These guidelines that allow unpaid internships discuss the training benefits interns gain from their experience and specify that the internship is for the intern’s advantage, not the employer’s.

Maybe it’s desperate or even a little demeaning, but I am willing to deal with the flaws, work my hardest and fetch everyone in the office their iced mocha lattes, if doing so brings me closer to my dream job. Is that silly? Maybe, but I’d rather be silly now and secure later.

Orginally published in Minnesota Daily, U. Minnesota via UWIRE