Are Internships Valuable?

Summer is here, and that means job boards clogged with internship postings. There has been a fair amount of controversy surrounding internships over the past few years, and the publishing and media industries certainly aren't exempt. Whether you're thinking about spending the next few months in the office of a small literary journal or traversing the floors of a major publication, a bit of research can go a long way. Is it ever reasonable to accept an unpaid internship, and how valuable is that experience when it comes to finding a more permanent position?  

The Benefits

Some colleges require an internship, and others will award credit based on experience. This is where the less transparent value of an unpaid internship may manifest itself. No, you aren’t directly being handed a paycheck, but there may still be a real exchange happening outside of the “fun office environment” your employer alleges in all its job postings.

There may still be a real exchange happening outside of the “fun office environment” your employer alleges in all its job postings.

For instance, a single summer internship can sometimes earn the equivalent of three credits, or a single college course. The going price per credit at Michigan State (a typically priced public school) was $428.75 when The Atlantic last examined tuition rates in 2014, putting a full course at approximately $1286.25. That equals out to just over 177 hours of work at the current federal minimum wage of $7.25. Depending on how many hours you’re investing into it, an internship that awards college credit could actually be a good value for your time.

Some Caveats…

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) doesn’t define “intern” or “trainee.” Instead, the Department of Labor uses a six-part test to determine whether someone is an intern or an employee. In the case of Solis V. Laurelbrook Sanitarium and School, Inc a “primary benefit” test was also created. Basically, an internship arranged by a high school or college is supposed to primarily benefit the student, not create an unpaid employee substitute for the company. But the important thing to take away is that there is no protection for interns under FLSA or the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When all is said and done, the law does not usually obligate employers to pay their interns. An exception might be if the employer implied that there would be compensation for the intern, but then withdrew it.    

So, say you've decided that you want to go ahead and take the position anyway. The lack of pay and the slew of lawsuits that have been targeted at places like Gawker and Condé Nast over the past few years by previous interns don't seem applicable. You've found a placement with a publication you really admire, or you're getting enough college credit to make it worthwhile. Things are going well, and you think maybe you'd like to stay for a while as a full-time employee. Unfortunately, it appears that in many cases, interning with a company doesn't do much for your chances of working there full-time. In 2013, only 37 percent of students with unpaid internships received job offers. That's compared with 63.1 percent of paid interns, and just 1.8 percent higher than the rate of students with no internship experience at all. In fact, the Department of Labor asserts that unpaid internships should be of a fixed duration, otherwise they may qualify for employee protection under FLSA and legally require payment.

As with most things in life, there isn’t a perfect yes or no to the unpaid internship issue. It depends on the individual situation, and the expectations that come with the internship in question. “Expectation” is a very important word here; being honest with your own expectations might mean the difference between a horrible experience and one that is at least educational. When in doubt, ask yourself the same question established by the DOL: exactly who benefits from the internship most, them or me? If the answer is them, your spare time might be better spent reading by the pool this summer.

Image of 10 Things Employers Want You to Learn in College, Revised: The Skills You Need to Succeed
Author: Bill Coplin
Price: $12.87
Publisher: Ten Speed Press (2012)
Binding: Paperback, 304 pages
Leah Dearborn

Column by Leah Dearborn

Leah Dearborn is a bibliophile and bookseller from the frigid North Shore of Massachusetts. A graduate of the journalism program at UMass Amherst, she spends her spare time blogging about books (of course), history, politics, and events in the Boston area. Occasionally, she spits out something resembling fiction, and has previously served as a contributor to Steampunk Magazine. She collects typewriters and old novels and laments the fact that her personal library has outgrown her apartment.

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