Paid or Unpaid Internships?

Last weekend, more than 200 prospective students and parents visited the Career Center and many wanted to talk about internships. One parent referenced a recent  New York Times op-ed, “Unpaid Interns, Complicit Colleges,” which explored the efficacy of unpaid internships offered at for-profit companies. One parent asked a question we hear often in the Career Center: should my student take an unpaid internship in order to gain experience?

The answer? Maybe. Unpaid internships may be the only opportunity available to gain experience in a field that lacks the financial resources to support paid student employees. For example, many non-profit organizations welcome the prospect of a well-matched and qualified summer student intern, but do not have the money to support interns financially. Even for-profit organizations may lack the funds to pay interns, particularly in the wake of the recession.

Unpaid internships can provide excellent hands-on experience, networking opportunities and exposure to industries and career fields under consideration. For students who cannot commit to full summer internship opportunities- those  who work full-time during the summer, plan to study abroad, or are committed to varsity athletic activities- unpaid internships may provide invaluable short-term work experiences crucial to developing skills needed for future employment.

But, as Perlin rightfully asserts, researching unpaid internship opportunities is critical  to assure that the work you will do meets U.S. labor standards. Unpaid interns lack the protections afforded paid workers by labor laws, including those that prohibit racial discrimination and sexual harassment. In light of recent criticisms of unpaid internship opportunities, the U.S. Department of Labor developed a fact sheet to help employers and prospective unpaid interns understand the six criteria that must be met for students to work without compensation in for-profit organizations:

1. The internship experience is similar to that of an educational environment

2. The internship benefits the intern

3. The intern does not displace existing employees (i.e. someone is fired and replaced with an unpaid worker), and is supervised closely by staff

4. The employer derives no immediate advantage (i.e. monetary savings) by hosting the intern

5. The intern is not necessarily promised a job upon completing the internship

6. Both the intern and employer agree and understand the intern is not entitled to wages for work completed

If you are considering an unpaid internship, make sure you do your homework. Ask yourself whether the opportunity meets the above U.S. Department of Labor standards. Do not accept unpaid internship offers that have unreasonable expectations for your time and amount of work. Use the William and Mary network on LinkedIn to see if other students or alumni have worked for the organization you are considering and inquire about their experiences. Talk with the Career Center if you feel uncertain about an unpaid opportunity and its expectations of you as an intern.

You may also apply for structured, unpaid internships vetted by our Internship Coordinator through the Career Center. The Local Internship Program provides current William and Mary students with unpaid internship opportunities for 7-10 hours per week with local companies and organizations. More than 120 internships are offered each semester, giving students a chance to explore career options, build career-specific skills, and enhance résumés.

Career experience through internships is important, but so is your time, and the use of your talents. Investigate your internship opportunities thoroughly and use the Career Center as a resource in the process.

Categories: Careers, Faculty & Staff Blogs, Other
  1. Bernice Chu
  2. Ashleigh

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