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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Assessing the value of internships

Much is made of the debate between paid and unpaid internship work. Detractors of the unpaid internship claim that the practice is exploitative, and has little concrete benefit for the intern.

Yearly surveys conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers suggest that unpaid interns do not have a higher chance of finding a job post-graduation than students who didn’t intern at all, while former paid interns are actually twice as likely to be employed.

In a 2014 article for Forbes, Young Voices Advocate Rachel Burger even went so far as to claim, “Don’t fall for the unpaid internship trap … your hard work will probably not pay off.”

On the other end of the argument are people like CEOs Ryan Smith of Qualtrics and Ryan Hardwood of PureWow, both of whom have written articles for Fortune emphasizing the necessity of internships in preparing students for their prospective careers.

“Universities teach students how to think, but they don’t provide real world experience, so people leave school unprepared for the workplace,” Smith wrote.

I’ve spent the summer interning for two busy production companies in Los Angeles, Calif., and now in my final week as an unpaid intern I feel qualified to weigh in on the argument.

Being an unpaid intern can often feel like a thankless, even unjust position. Between paying for gas, food, credit hours and rent—both in Los Angeles and to keep my apartment back in Tucson—I’ve had to spend thousands of dollars this summer, just so I could do work for the companies that hired me.

The credit hours especially sting, as they are essentially the student paying the school to recognize an internship that is required for the student’s degree program—an internship that the school did very little to help the student obtain in the first place.

But before I start to sound like I’m advocating for some sort of student-intern revolution, let me be clear: all of this pain-in-the-assery, despite being just that, was absolutely worth it.

What’s important to notice about the above opinions is perspective: those opposed to unpaid internships are typically students, or former students who, like me, have gone through that process of paying to work your ass off for the summer. They’re stressed out, probably in debt, and still have their entire careers ahead of them. (I.e., they have very little actual life experience to speak from.)

Unpaid internship advocates on the other hand are notably CEOs, business owners and other professionals. And before you start crying “Well OF COURSE they’re in favor of the unpaid internship, they get to exploit free labor!” consider that both companies I worked for, and the companies of the two aforementioned CEOs, use their interns for tasks that they already pay office PAs and assistants to do.

Many unpaid internships then are something ancillary that a company undertakes not because they have any real need for those student employees, but because they find value in training and keeping tabs on potential future professionals.

And this is the value that so many students overlook, probably because it’s far less tangible, but no less valuable, than the thousands of dollars spent on the student’s end to actually undertake the internship.

For my part, I can attest to having learned everything from how to park in downtown during the Los Angeles lunch rush, to how to talk to A-list talent when they’re on the phone or in the office impatient that their meeting with the producer hasn’t started yet.

I started the summer as a nervous, typically inexperienced student who preferred not to drive anywhere if he didn’t have to, and ended it as a competent (if still nervous) professional who will damn well drive wherever you need him to on a moment’s notice.

My learning during my internships was not just vocational, but professional, molding me into a more mature individual capable of tackling my post-graduation life, which, thank God, is still a year away.

I don’t know if my internships will lead to me more easily finding a paying job in the future, but they absolutely will lead to me keeping that job once I do find it.

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