A look at the booming business of unpaid internships
During a summer at the New Hampshire State House, Ben Savard sorted through mail and emails sent to New Hampshire’s governor: concerns and thank yous were transcribed into concise messages, death threats were handled by someone of a higher authority and the weekly Pixar or Disney-themed postcards from a random Florida resident were put into an entirely separate file. The following summer at Florentine Films, Savard helped make a database of all the images ever used in a Ken Burns documentary, read over scripts and answered phones. And so was the life of an unpaid intern.
“I was doing necessary things that other people needed to do but had skills that were being put to better use not doing them,” said Savard, a sophomore film major at Middlebury College. “It was very, very cool being a small cog in the machinery but still being a part of the process and helping things move forward.”
Internships are becoming an increasingly important aspect of career preparation. Of 20,000 college graduates in 2011 that were surveyed by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, more than 50 percent had worked as interns during their college career. Half of those internships were unpaid.
For many young people trying to bolster their resumes, skill sets and networks, unpaid internships are worth the financial burden they may cause. Tori Loubier graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a journalism degree in 2010, a summer when 4.4 million youth ages 16 to 24 were unemployed.
“I had to expect I was probably only going to find unpaid internships,” Loubier said.
Between 1999 and 2009, undergraduate enrollment increased 38 percent, sending more and more college graduates into the workplace. Kristin LiBritz, an Employer Relations Coordinator at Ithaca College’s Career Services center, helps students use their college years to best prepare for future careers.
“Employers are often looking for students with some hands-on experience in addition to what they’re learning in the classroom,” she said. “Students getting some sort of experience in internships is really helpful for them.”
Loubier also struggled to find a paid position after college. She took out a loan in order to work as an unpaid intern in New York City that she is still paying off. She then moved back to New Hampshire and took a full-time paid position, but soon discovered it wasn’t what she wanted to be doing. After searching on Craigslist for opportunities, Loubier was attracted to the young energy of a start up company in California called Stay Classy. She left paid employment on the east coast for yet another unpaid internship.
“For me, it was worth it to take a step back going from a paid job to an unpaid job because Stay Classy was the type of atmosphere that I wanted to be in,” she said.
Loubier worked for six months as an unpaid intern at Stay Classy, and has recently been hired as a paid employee, working 30 hours per week. Even as a paid employee, she needs to work a second job, putting in about another 30 hours a week at a restaurant.
“I’m never home, but it has actually been an adventure. I feel like for me being at this age, this is the time to be busy and be doing lots of stuff,” she said. “It’s okay to be a little tight on money.”
Erin Dunphy, a junior journalism major at IC, felt the pressure of finding an internship the summer after her sophomore year.
“We’re a very competitive generation, we’re out to crush people,” she said.
She landed a paid internship with ABC News Now right before the start of the 2011 summer after a long and discouraging internship search.
“It was the most stressful experience of my life,” she said. “I just felt awful about myself. All of a sudden I kept thinking: I have so many loans, what if this happens in two years when I go to get a job? What if I can’t find something?”
For many 20-somethings, getting thrown into a time of high unemployment rates and high expectations makes internship positions very appealing. Student loans, intense peer competition, and a bad economy make it more difficult for young people to balance getting career experience and just getting by, but many can foresee the benefits internships have on careers.
“It’s not necessarily you are working for free,” Dunphy said. “You’re working toward your future.”
Kristin Leffler is a sophomore journalism major who is only on her 17th internship. Email her at kleffle1[at]ithaca[dot]edu.