Rise of Internships: Lack of Pay Is Often Overlooked in the Pursuit of Work Experience

More college students from the class of 2015 participated in internships than in any other year previously recorded by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

Of these internships, 22 percent were unpaid positions in the for-profit, private industry.

Several hundred students at Glendale College have completed unpaid internships for college credit since 2005, according to Andra Hoffman Verstraete, director of the Job Placement Center.

The Fair Labor Standards Act stipulates that unpaid internships at for-profit companies are acceptable so long as the positions are designed to be educational and interns are closely trained by a supervisor who receives no immediate advantage from the work of the intern. For these types of positions, the intern must receive college credit.

The regulations for non-profit organizations differ slightly and interns are classified as volunteers who do not need to be compensated.

“Before a student enters into any kind of internship, they should sit down with that organization and a faculty member separately and come up with objectives,” said Hoffman Verstraete. “What is it that the student wants to get out of the internship? [An internship] should be linked to their academic program or some kind of academic learning.”

Despite these stringent regulations, private companies still engage students in unpaid positions for which they receive no college credit. Glendale College has both current and former students with experiences in such positions.

“It was weird because it felt like I was doing the job of an actual employee, but I wasn’t getting paid for it,” said David Villegas about a three-month unpaid internship he completed at a private company.

Regardless of the lack of compensation, the second-year student majoring in kinesiology felt the internship was an important resume-builder. “I knew if I wanted to continue in that field, experience was key so I decided that it was worth my while for three months and then I went back to studying,” Villegas said.

For Villegas, there is a fine balance between experience gained and time spent in an unpaid position. At the time of his internship, he was unaware about the Fair Labor Standards Act.

“There are some [unpaid internships] that I feel like can be concerning because it just feels like the employer is gaining more than what they are actually teaching the intern,” Villegas said.

Sara Haakana, a former student, interned for a small film company where she was not paid and since she was not in college at the time she did not receive any college credit. While her employer had notified her that college credit was mandatory, Haakana was quite eager to take on the position regardless of compensation and they both agreed to move forward with the internship.

“It was only twice a week and I generally enjoyed it so I didn’t really mind,” Haakana said. ”Plus I thought it would be good experience or provide access to connections or other job opportunities. At the very least it would look good on my resume.”

Haakana pointed out that competition for jobs after college is fierce and internships may help students gain an advantage. “What other choice do we have when we try to get jobs right after college, and yet every potential employer wants to see experience on your resume?” she said.

She hopes colleges would try to offer more courses that teach valuable professional skills that students can enroll in while they are completing their degrees. Programs like these might ease the burden of balancing school, loan debt and a career, she said.

Solene Manoukian, another former GCC student and current Public Relations Intern for the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, has participated in five unpaid internships, most of which were for the private,
for-profit companies.

Like Villegas and Haakana, she felt the experience outweighed the lack of pay.

“All these places are like, ‘In order for you to work here, you have to have specific experience,’’’ Manoukian said. “No one is going to pay you without experience and you cannot land anything without experience.”

She credits her previous internship for fueling her career. “[My current supervisor] teaches me the ropes and I really love what I am doing,” Manoukian said. “Because of my previous experiences with internships, this is where I’ve come and I am happy with that.”

Manoukian acknowledged, however, that an unpaid internship is not an opportunity that every student can afford. “Fortunately, at home I am supported by my family,” she said. “I know some people who might want the experience, but it might be more important [for them] to find something that pays.”

Before budget cuts between 2008 and 2013, GCC offered a robust internship program. Internships are now run mostly through the business division and sporadically with faculty members who are willing to offer that option as an independent study.

Hoffman Verstraete understands the value of an internship and hopes to see a well-structured internship program return to the college. “It’s really hard to pick what you want to major in because you haven’t experienced it yet, so it’s important for students to do internships,” Hoffman Verstraete said.
If more internships are run directly through GCC, the college will have greater power in ensuring that students are not exploited, she said.

“A student should know that [internships] are not free labor so if they’re being asked to make copies, get coffee, do some of those tasks, that’s not an internship,” Hoffman Verstraete said. “An internship is directly linked to learning.”