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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


College students struggle to gain experience and pay their bills

When college seniorKristina Webb, 23, decided to take an unpaid internship at a newspaper this summer, she thought she could make it work. She would live at home, get a part-time job, and cut back her spending. Her parents offered to help her pay for food and gas.

But then Kristina’s father got laid off from his construction job, the family budget tightened, and Kristina, who attends Palm Beach Atlantic University, did not hear back from any of 35 part-time jobs she applied to. Blame it on the economy.

“”Everybody’s hurting, employers and students,”” saidDawn Howard, Associate Director of the Career Development Center at Florida Atlantic University.

As companies cut costs, the number of internship opportunities offered nationwide has dropped 21 percent from last year, according to the Pennsylvania-based National Association of Colleges and Employers. Many that remain are unpaid.

“”We used to pay, but we’re not doing that anymore,”” saidTom Triozzi, senior vice president of BankAtlantic, which stopped paying interns in 2008 when the economy took a downturn.

“”We ask them to work for free for a great work experience,”” Triozzi said.

It’s this desire for experience that pushes students like Kristina to intern. “”I know that if I don’t, it’s going to be harder for me to get a job in the future,”” Webb said. So she got a job pet-sitting and interns several times a week at the Palm Beach’s Town-Crier newspaper, without pay.

“”It’s really frustrating, especially since I actually produce content for the Town-Crier,”” Webb said. “”But it’s definitely worth it.””

More than ever, internships are viewed as the surest route to a job after graduation. “”Having an internship is absolutely essential,”” saidChristine Childers, director of Career Development at Lynn University, who advises, “”Whatever it takes, it’s important that students do it.””

But as the recession drags on, it’s taking a lot more than it used to, leaving students in a bind. They are told that internships are essential, no matter the cost, but as opportunities shrink and costs rise, they’re forced to ask: is this worth it?

“”If a student is in a hardship situation, payment can make a difference between whether they can intern or not,”” Childers said.

For some, working for free is simply not possible.

“”It denies low income kids an opportunity,”” saidBarbara Pippin, special assistant to the president for governmental relations at Broward College. “”Internships are similar to what study abroad programs used to be: if you had money, you could go.””

For these students, internships become part of a daily balancing act. “”They have to juggle work and school and internships, along with their other responsibilities, just to put in two or three hours, just so they can say ‘I did this,'”” Pippin said.

It’s a familiar situation forAmir Arab, 23. He had an unpaid internship last summer before being hired at a Miami financial company. Despite the positive experience, he said, one summer of unpaid work was enough. “”I have a mortgage, and I have a daughter,”” he said.

“”No one is going to pay my bills.””

There is some good news, however. Companies like Target have kept their internship programs running—and paying—despite the sluggish economy, realizing the value of internships as recruiting tools.

“”We get a lot of great talent,”” saidVictor Rota, group campus recruiter for Target. “”Seventy to eighty percent of them come back to work for us, so the return on the investment is there.””

Moreover, companies that offer paid internships are increasing the hourly wage by 5 percent, moving the national average to $17.13 per hour, according to NACE. “”That reflects an understanding that interns may need more money than they did before,”” saidCarolyn Wise, senior education editor for Vault Inc, career information provider and publisher of The Vault Guide to Top Internships.

Students taking unpaid internships are encouraged to ask for help, Wise said. “”Sometimes companies will work with you to ease the financial burden. There are also a number of colleges that offer summer fellowships to cover internship expenses,”” she said.

While internships remain important even in a time of financial hardship and job scarcity, students are asked to balance humility with a sense of self-worth. “”Students have to show a willingness to work hard,”” Childers said. “”But at the same time, they need to be valued, and if employers can pay them, then they should.””


(c) 2009, Sun Sentinel.

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