Finding the value in unpaid internships

Matthew Scheidel, Staff Reporter

In order to get a good job out of college, most companies will require an unpaid internship. That’s anywhere from 10-40 hours per week of free labor.

Many of these companies will have students do traditional office work— such as getting the coffee and/or donuts— instead of gaining actual experience. Others will have students do work that a paid employee should do.

Then there’s students that are economically disadvantaged and cannot afford working an unpaid internship — that’s a problem.

There are some great potential employees out there that aren’t getting the same opportunities as someone who comes from a wealthier background.

Garry Gilbert, director of the Journalism Department at Oakland University, said 80% of internships the university offers are unpaid.

“That’s a problem for a lot of students,” Gilbert said. “We expect students to put in 150 to 160 hours over a 15-week period in an internship. That means an average of 10 hours a week, or if you’re doing it during the summer as a full time internship, that would mean four to five weeks. That’s a load for a student to do without getting compensated in some way for it.”

Gilbert said there are three advantages to an unpaid internship: experience, network opportunities and putting it on your resume.

“We check our internship employers… to make sure  they’re actually giving our students some valuable experience [and]  they’re not just  asking them to do office tasks,” Gilbert said. “You get to meet people who might be in a position to be able to hire you later, or to be able to refer you to somebody else —  [So] you make a good impression on them, and then that helps you find the job later on.”

Gilbert continued on to say these internships are great resume builders.

“Then you get the opportunity to list this on your resume,” Gilbert said. “Because when you go out and start looking for that first job, one of the first things you’re going to be asked and particularly if you’re a journalism or PR major is, ‘tell us about your internship experience.’”

Gilbert said the internship department tries to find alternative options for students who can’t afford to work an unpaid internship.

“For the last 10 years, we have offered a course called OU News Bureau, and it is the equivalent of an internship,” Gilbert said. “Brian Hlavaty was the director of that class. Brian has decided to retire however, and we just haven’t seen the demand for the Bureau in recent years. So we’ve discontinued that class [and] we’re looking now for another type of opportunity.”

Gilbert said Kate Roff, an instructor in the journalism program, is working to reinvent the OU News Bureau class as a “solutions journalism” class.

“‘Solutions journalism’ is sort of a buzz phrase that’s out there in the media world where reporters are trained to look for answers to society’s problems,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert mentioned employers only hiring people who have worked an unpaid internship creates a lack of diversity in the hiring pool.

“Frankly, we see students who are economically disadvantaged, and it makes it more difficult for them to take an unpaid internship,” Gilbert said. “More economically advantaged students probably tend to come from wealthier areas, or maybe from the suburbs. They have perhaps better opportunities, they get the kind of internships or the kind of networking that they can get.”

It’s time to change the stigma around unpaid internships. Employers need to start compensating their interns for their hard work and create equal opportunities for everyone.