Unpaid internships create dilemmas for young job-searchers

Though the Hill is still blanketed in snow with few signs of spring arriving anytime soon, campus is already preoccupied with planning for summer vacation. For both seniors and underclassmen, the impending months mean leaving the safety of our “bubble on the Hill” to join the teeming thousands of twenty-somethings searching for employment. Many students will wait tables and supervise campers, while others will seek internships all over the country. These students will work just as hard for corporate firms and non-profit organizations, in publishing houses and hospitals, but instead of a paycheck, their labor will only earn them another few lines on their resume.

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As a college student, the pressure to find internships has never been stronger. Only the fittest survive in the current job market, rendering the slightest amount of previous experience a serious asset to one’s future career. Still, despite the Piper Center’s efforts to keep our inboxes inundated with opportunities, the perfect internship is notoriously difficult to find. Between strenuous application processes and accidentally missing deadlines, finding work experience is not for the faint of heart. It is also not for those with slim wallets, since two-thirds of the internships currently available are unpaid according to postings on http://www.internships.com.

In a way, the lack of financial incentive makes perfect sense. As a learning experience, an internship provides students with first-hand skills for a future career. This exposure is generally unobtainable in classrooms or lecture halls. While an intern may not be at a desk, he or she is still a student with a great deal to learn – unlike, say, a fry-cook or cashier. Instead, students apply for an internship not so much to work, but to learn how to work under the guidance of experienced professionals.

And yet, internships often ask for a considerable amount of effort to be devoted to tasks that, at first glance, appear more menial than meaningful. While the importance of knowing how to fix a jammed printer cannot be understated, it is difficult at times to feel the long-term payoff for working overtime without pay week after week.

Recently, the boom in unpaid internships has led to questions of whether these work experiences fall within the legal bounds of current labor laws. Regardless, many of us are willing to work for nothing in exchange for the experience of taking part in the daily thrum of a company, even if it means sacrificing the greater part of our summer and sanity.

This brings up yet another issue. Because internships eat up the majority of the work week, they tend to render it impossible to juggle an actual paying job on the side. While an inextricable prerequisite for many high-paying careers, internships present a catch-22 to lower-income students, especially those who want to work in fields like politics or journalism that traffic in unpaid internships. Oles who normally spend their summers earning enough money to keep on top of tuition and loan payments find themselves at a permanent disadvantage to their peers who can afford to work without pay. While there are certainly paid internships out there, they are few and far between – not to mention that they tend to go to those with previous internship experience.

Most college students believe they need to sacrifice their summers and their salaries for the “experience” they will gain from a tenuous position at the rock bottom of the corporate pyramid. The other benefit of an internship is the possibility of getting a foot in the door. While guaranteed full-time unemployment might as well stay a pipedream, the possibility of future connections made through careful social networking remains.

Our lives are becoming less like “Choose Your Own Adventure” and more like user’s manuals. The chance of a perfect entry-level job seems to be going extinct; it is clear that now, more than ever, we will have to work harder and dream bigger than ever before to “make it” in the world.

Like college, an internship should be, first and foremost, about self-exploration, a chance to figure out what works and what does not, what brings you joy and what you could do without – not about settling into a set career from here to eternity.

The difficulties of internships abound; while an exciting opportunity of firsthand experience, unpaid internships and the sheer competitiveness of applications bar many students from even applying for these coveted chances for resume-building. Until they are a feasible option for more students, employers should keep in mind that a student’s passion and strong work ethic can be discerned from a minimum wage job just as easily as it can from even the most impressive of unpaid internships.

Sam Botz ’14 botzs@stolaf.edu is from St. Joseph, Minn. She majors in English and history.

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Student journalism is a very important platform for opinions