Student debate paid, unpaid internship effectiveness



They answer phones, run errands, make copies, enter data and occasionally pick up coffee. They energetically follow their supervisors around the office and often do the mundane tasks that their bosses do not have the time or desire to do. They are the interns. At the office primarily to learn and gain experience, they provide their employers not only with a new lackey, but a student as well.

But more recently, students and companies are beginning to question what are appropriate tasks for interns and what is more suited for a paid employee.

The Supreme Court heard a case earlier this month on the legality of unpaid internships. For more than 50 years, the Supreme Court has ruled that unpaid internships must be used for training purposes only, but it appears that in some cases, internships may be getting away from this principle.

The Money Factor

Some students said pay was an important factor for them – whether they couldn’t afford to go the summer without it, felt they deserved it or hoped it would lead to a job offer afterward.

“Students who work paid internships are significantly more likely to transition to full-time employment within an organization compared to students who complete unpaid internships,” Tiffany Goodin, program manager for Student Services, said.

According to a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, less than 38 percent of students who complete unpaid internships get a job offer, as opposed to the 61 percent of paid interns who receive job offers after an internship.

Alex Vawter, asenior majoring in classics and interdisciplinary studies with a concentration on foreign languages, is paid for her remote internship with Syriaca.org. She has been working with David Michaelson, a current professor at Vanderbilt University and former University of Alabama professor.

Vawter could have gotten college credit through New College for the fall semester as well as pay, but the internship could not provide her with enough hours to do both.

“I decided I didn’t really need it either,” she said. “New College applies summer internship hours to the fall, and my schedule for fall semester is already pretty full, and I didn’t want to add any more hours.”

Though it is paid, Vawter said one of the greatest benefits the internship is the mentoring she’s receiving.

“So far Dr. Michaelson has sort of been mentoring me along the way and throwing out ideas of what I could do after I graduate,” Vawter said. “He mentioned a Bible translation conference that I am going to see if I am interested in. I am not getting paid much, but I think what I am learning in return makes it worth it. If you are working with someone who is an expert in their field, you will learn a ton from that person.”

Vawter also said she sees her internship as being potentially valuable for networking in the future.

“Most of the people that are working on the project are working remotely,” she said. “They are working in Washington, D.C., or studying at Oxford. And it is cool because now they at least know my name and have heard my voice. So it’s helpful for networking.”

The Education Argument

Nearly two-thirds of graduating seniors from the class of 2013 took part in an internship or co-op during their years pursing a bachelor’s degree, according to another survey done by the NACE. According to the survey, the internships were nearly split, paid and unpaid.

Lauren Zezulka, a senior majoring in criminal justice, is an unpaid intern with the Tuscaloosa Police Department this summer. Zezulka chose to participate in the internship though it is no longer a requirement for the degree. Instead, she will receive seven UA credit hours.

She said it is slightly difficult receiving no monetary compensation, but the academic hours are worth the work.

“It’s hard because I don’t have time to have a job this summer between doing my internship and taking classes,” she said. “But if I was to get paid, it wouldn’t count for class credit, and I would rather have that.”

Sam Gerard, a junior majoring in history and political science, has worked two unpaid internships, and said the experience is invaluable in helping students navigate their career possibilities.

“Internship opportunities let one test out different work environments, which is just as important as the training required to perform a job well,” Gerard said. “They let you witness what people do on a day-to-day basis and let you take part in some of the work. If you like what you experience, it’s a career worth doing in the future. But if you don’t like the work, the people or the feelings you have when you are home, it’s a career to table.”

Gerard was an intern with the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery, Ala., last summer, and he is currently an intern at the Alabama Democratic Majority this summer. He was able to receive college credit for his internship with ADAH.

“[The internship] was my first 300 level class from poli-sci I took,” he said. “I wish I had gotten paid. Everybody likes money. But I treat my internships as more of workplace learning experience rather than an office job. It feels the same as when I had an office job, but they have been more laid back than when I worked for a paid job.”

Krista James has also seen her internship as a networking opportunity that may be more beneficial to her than having a paid internship elsewhere. James, a sophomore majoring in political science and journalism, interned for Congresswoman Terri Sewell in her D.C. office from May 6 - 24.

“Internships build up your networks,” James said. “I always say that the networking I do in college is just as important as going to class and earning my degree. Taking advantage of your connections and the internship opportunities that could come with those connections is highly important. My internship with Congresswoman Terri Sewell helped me figure out the path I want to take when I get out of college. I was also told that because of my work in the office, I will be given the opportunity to come back up for the next three summers as well [to] work in the congresswoman’s Tuscaloosa office.”

James could have received political science credit for it, but because she was only in Washington, D.C., for three weeks, she decided the $1,000 it would cost to be enrolled for summer credit did not seem worth it.

Both Gerard and James said they were treated with fairness and respect at their internship opportunities, but agree interns should be compensated for work equivalent of an employee.

“As an unpaid intern, I was never asked to do the job of a paid employee,” she said. “I helped a few of them get certain things done, but those were in my ‘job description,’ and they were tasks that took less than half an hour to complete. If an intern is going to be asked to do something up to par with a paid employee, they should be getting paid. Because I was unpaid, I did not have to come in as early, stay as late, or sit at my desk near as long. I was given a lunch break plus an extra hour to roam around D.C.”

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