As per usual around this time of year, dinner conversation at the sorority house revolves around whose ex-boyfriend has the ugliest date to spring formal, and how we all plan on pretending to be real people come summer time. With a few big campus internship fairs approaching, and fresh faced recruiters to impress, we share advice on which tables to visit, which pencil skirt minimizes my Kardashian rear best, and how many copies of my painstakingly perfected résumé is appropriate to tote in my classy padfolio. Yet, after all of the prep work, my thoughts continue to revolve back to “Why am I doing this again?” Why spend another summer unpaid, working like a slave, to add three more stellar bullet points to my résumé, while my bank account silently weeps? By offering my superstar skills to these companies for free, am I contributing to the depreciation of the value of an undergrad degree? Are these hours I spend tweaking cover letters turning me into an experience whore?
About half of all internships are unpaid. If you’re comfortable with that number, it’s not surprising. Most of my peers seem to be expecting a blank paycheck once they score an internship with the company they’ve been scouting on LinkedIn for years. While tough economic times make jobs scarce, these low wage expectations for the jobs that do exist make life harder for students who don’t have the financial means to spend a summer taking in zero income. Students forced to take a minimum wage job folding clothes or brewing coffee may be putting some cash in their pockets, but aren’t getting the experience needed to stay competitive with their peers. Nearly every full-time job requires experience, and many job offers are bred out of summer internships, meaning if you’re behind in the internship game, you’re unfortunately also behind in the career game.
If the number of unpaid internships makes you queasy, however, you’re not alone. Recently Alex Footman, an unpaid intern who worked on the award-winning film Black Swan, took legal action in a class action suit against the film company asking for backed pay, challenging the idea of free student labor. While the U.S. Labor Department has issued a test to determine if internships require payment or not, essentially based on the fact if the job benefits the intern or the employer, the line of who the work is benefiting can be easily blurred. When an unpaid intern is doing everything necessary to earn the employer’s praise, to obtain a coveted letter of recommendation, one true, single beneficiary can be difficult to determine.
While they may have just begun to be challenged, unpaid internships won’t go away as long as college students stay thirsty for experience, and the job market continues in its lowly state. The real question is: are they worth it? Is it better to spend three and a half months carefully sculpting sno cones to save up for another Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale? This one is up to you. As for me, I’ll keep shaking hands and perfecting bullet points until I’m the one doing the interviewing.