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Don’t Get Sucked Into The Unpaid Internship Trap

Education

You are worth more than chronic volunteer work.

Job applicants arrives for an internship job fair held by the Miami Marlins, Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, at Marlins Park in Miami. The internships are paid, offer a wide range of job opportunities and begin in January 2014, lasting one year. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Internships are meant to bridge the gap between what’s learned in a classroom and what is useful in the business world. Some are as competitive as college applications, starting their selection process in September and not finishing until April. But most pick their interns in February and March, meaning that millions of college students are gearing up their applications in this competitive season.

College students: be warned. Unpaid internships may not be helpful at all in securing a job upon graduation.

Job applicants arrives for an internship job fair held by the Miami Marlins, Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, at Marlins Park in Miami. The internships are paid, offer a wide range of job opportunities and begin in January 2014, lasting one year. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The National Association of Colleges and Employers conducted a recent survey questioning the benefits of unpaid internships. They found that of those recruited for a job before graduation, 63 percent had a paid internship before graduation. Hiring rates for those who had chosen to complete an unpaid internship (37 percent) were almost the same for those who had not completed any internship at all (35 percent). What’s worse, those with unpaid internships tended to take lower-paying jobs than those with no internship experience whatsoever ($35,721 and $37,087, respectively).

In other words: unpaid internships are not only unhelpful for new grads to get jobs, but they also work against potential starting salaries.

Why would anyone opt to work for free if its detrimental to their potential future earnings?

New laws have been introduced to define what is and isn’t a legal internship, but those laws are hardly going to change the mass availability of unpaid internships. For one, students are so desperate for “work experience” that they are willing to participate in unpaid internships without whistleblowing (who wants to be on the blacklist, anyway?).

Furthermore, for many unpaid internships to be legal, students must fork over cash for college credits. Many would prefer not to pay for their voluntary work, keeping their internships illegal. Finally, students are also more attracted to nonprofit work than ever before, which is not held to any paid internship legislation.

A simple rule of business is to cut costs: pay people the minimum they are willing to work for. If these kids are willing to work for free, why would businesses turn them down? In fact, taking on interns is a risk to most employers: interns are untrained and temporary. Unless interns are providing employers with real value to their bottom line, companies are going to continue to be disinterested in paying for their services.

To be sure, some might argue that some industries are so competitive that they can only internships or jobs available are unpaid. That is notoriously true for the fashion and magazine industries, where, after interns sued for back pay, many companies stopped offering internships.

But there is a reason that these industries are notoriously difficult to start a career in: their sectors are not performing well. The U.S. fashion sector has faced massive layoffs--up to 80 percent in some parts of the industry--since 1996. And the publishing industry is hardly doing better. Magazine circulation and advertising revenue is nosediving. In fact, employment of writers and authors is projected to grow only 3 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all other occupations.

By no means will an unpaid internship guarantee students a career upon completion. In most sectors where unpaid internships abound, it’s because there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around.

Ultimately, these students have a choice for their summer plans. They can apply for a paid internship (which, to be sure, can be difficult to attain). They can apply for paid hourly jobs or summer fellowships. They can even perform traditional high school summer jobs (one father in the "New York Times" argues that his daughter learned more in her camp counselor summer job than she would have at an unpaid internship).

Or they could choose to continue the grind at an unpaid internship. But don’t call it slave labor--unpaid internships are voluntary, classist, and unnecessary--and there is undoubtedly a choice involved.

As prominent internship applications open in February, students should avoid the unpaid internship trap: you are better off getting paid. You are worth more than chronic volunteer work.

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