Paid vs. unpaid: The internship debate

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In the February opinion pages of The New York Times, blogger Raphael Pope-Sussman compared unpaid internships to the use of child laborers in coal mines in the 1900s.

“This week, thousands of young people will work 40 hours (or more) answering phones, making coffee or doing data entry — without earning a cent,” Pope-Sussman wrote. “These unpaid interns receive no benefits, no legal protection against harassment or discrimination and no job security.”

Internships are required in some majors, though the definition of what qualifies as an internship varies widely.

[media-credit name=”Photo courtesy BYU internship office” align=”alignleft” width=”199″][/media-credit]
Colt Bowden, a junior majoring in illustration, makes paper at his internship with Tryst Press in Provo.
McKenzie Lawyer Davies, a career counselor at BYU’s Career Services, is a big fan of internships. It’s no secret prior experience gives students an edge when applying for jobs. Internships — whether full-time or a few hours a week — can provide a win-win situation for students and employers.

However, Davies encourages students to do their homework when applying.

“First you need to clarify what an internship is,” Davies said. “To me, it gives experience more than a part time job.”

Davies encourages students to use resources on campus such as the university job board, eRecruiting, University Career Services and the internship coordinator within their college. The university is careful about which companies it promotes and mindful of unpaid internships, like the ones Pope-Sussman describes, that seem like a good opportunity but turn out to be duds in the way of gaining experience.

“We have had students who have been exploited,” Davies said. “Each summer, we get a few phone calls from really concerned parents. Their children are somewhere in the United States, most often doing summer sales, that say ‘My student is stuck here; they’re stuck in this horrible situation and you need to get them out,’ because the student found the opportunity at BYU. Not in our office, but elsewhere on campus whether it was from another student, or someone was, quote, ‘recruiting’ on campus even though they weren’t supposed to.”

Davies said in these circumstances BYU addresses the concerns with the organization and either bans them from recruiting on campus or warns if it happens again they will be banned.

In addition to considering the quality of the internship and utilizing BYU’s resources, Davies suggested calling the company and asking to talk to a current or previous intern. She also advised asking that intern for a second reference to get another point of view.

“In any situation, you want to make sure that you are looking at it with a grain of salt and considering the pros and cons of any given opportunity, whether that’s an on-campus job or summer sales or a full-time offer from a large investment banking firm,” she said. “Students need to realize that it’s their due diligence to make sure that they’re asking the right questions.”

Davies said students with questions about any organization can ask at University Career Services.

BYU communications graduate McKay Coppins doesn’t regret working the first six weeks of a Newsweek internship without pay. His primary interest was findng the best opportunity. He and his wife saved for almost a year to afford to go to New York for the experience, and they weren’t disappointed. Coppins ended up being hired at Newsweek after his internship and a three-month paid extension, where he worked full time until January when he left to join the online news site BuzzFeed.

“Think of it as a mortgage on your future,” Coppins said. “It may be tough now, but it pays off in the long run.”

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