Selling yourself short

Why unpaid internships undermine your well bought education

By Zibby Pillote /// Editor-In-Chief

You want a hot body? You want a Bugatti? You want a job after you graduate? You better work. And if you have a dream of working in the field you paid four years’ tuition to earn a degree in, you better hope you score an internship.

Internships, especially unpaid internships, are a controversial way to break into the professional world. In November, 23-year-old Chelsea Lynn Robinson, hired as an unpaid summer intern for the Portland Timbers, earned $2,188.28 in back wages from the franchise for her 244.5 hours of work. Though she applied for an unpaid position, the Timbers wanted Robinson to fill the same role as many paid employees.

But not every unfairly unpaid internship will end in a check from your now-estranged boss. And not every unpaid internship is unfair. In a world where the demand for unpaid, or low-paid, skilled work is booming, how does one navigate their options?

SHAKE YOUR MONEY MAKER (FOR FREE)

If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford an unpaid internship, you’re lucky enough. Craigslist, Indeed, Idealist and other job sites are bursting at the seams with listings for unpaid internships. The great thing about unpaid internships is that every field has them–science, communications, publishing, art, journalism, research–and they usually come with perks to make up for lack of compensation.

“I was a publicity intern for Sub Pop in Seattle,” Ciara Dolan (’15) said. “Not paid, but I got free CDs and got to go to Sub Pop shows for free…they would take me out to coffee and lunch sometimes, and on the last day they treat you to a big “last lunch” where you get to go anywhere in Seattle.”

At her internship, Dolan worked 30 hours a week tracking news about Sub Pop bands, clipping articles and scouring the internet for reviews; she also helped with “mailers,” or sending new CDs to press outlets.

“The mailers were really hard because I would have to stuff 300 envelopes with CDs and bios, and sometimes I was the only intern,” she said. “But that was the only real ‘typical intern’ thing I had to do.

Dolan will repeat her unpaid Sub Pop experience this summer.

“They’re teaching me new things this time,” she said. “They started to teach me how to write press releases at the end of the summer.”

Learning new skills is the most valuable thing an unpaid internships can offer. Internships offer college kids a chance to inhabit a different environment and learn from it. Office space is not the same as campus space, and understanding real-world professional relationships is key. But unpaid internships still come at a cost, regardless of the free lunches and knowledge. Many unpaid internships offer class credit instead of money. However, at Lewis & Clark, you have to pay to enroll in the internship program over the summer. That’s negative money. Not to mention rent (LC offers summer housing, but at a high cost and no meal options), and public transportation if you don’t have a car.

“Not so much an issue with the internships itself, but my least favorite experience working [at Bitch] was a two-hour round trip commute to and from Vancouver,” said Hanna White (’14), who worked as a blogging and archive internship for Bitch Media last summer. “I thought about continuing the internship past the end of the summer, but the commute to and from school via public transport was too much.”

Even though paid internships are often bad ass–who wouldn’t want to work for a cool record company or a socially-aware and locally based magazine?–but the cost is greater than the gain. At the end of the day, you’re selling yourself short. The skills and knowledge you’ve amassed while attending our fine (and expensive) institution is worth more than break-room coffee and a free t-shirt.

If you must apply for an unpaid internship this summer, consider applying for grants through LC to finance your room and board.

MAKE IT RAIN

Although paid internships are few and far between (it seems), they do exist. Even non-profits offer paid internships. Summer of 2013, I only applied for paid internships, because my cost of living required that I make my own money. After many interviews from Beaverton to Powellhurst and some tears while half-heartedly filling out an application to Chipotle, I scored a paid internship at a national corporation based in Portland that would pay me $12/hr.

The experience I’ve gained at this internship has been immeasurable. Not only do I understand how an office works (yes, you can bring Tupperware in to smuggle out all the free food, just don’t be too obvious about it), I’ve gained real-life experience in the my field of study. I’m not going to pretend that accomplishing something like this is easy–with a little bit of luck and good timing mixed in with my experience and college education, I was hired.

Paid internships are competitive. Everyone wants one. And so many LC kids are marketable in these roles–we can write, we can research, we understand social media and we definitely know how to use the computer. Landing the perfect (and paid) internship will require you to interview well, make a good impression and follow up.

Paid internships require that you do so much more than just show up. You will not be stuffing envelopes (often) or fetching coffee (in fact, sometimes people bring coffee to you); you will be treated like a real employee. People will expect things from you. Deadlines will matter. You’ll have to clock in and clock out, and when you get your first paycheck, it suddenly doesn’t matter that you spent $50 on the bus that week.

“My internship was doing paid research as well as chores in a lab at Oregon Health and Science University,” Ella Dawley (’14) said. “It was paid, I was an OHSU employee. My favorite thing about my internship was the support, recognition and feedback I received from my mentors and bosses.”

Dawley felt challenged and respected at her internship, and is now looking for a long-term research position that will pay her.

I’m positive that I would love my job regardless of whether or not it was paid, but the respect that comes with being a salaried employee makes me want to do my job better. There’s something about that $12 that holds me more accountable to everything that I do.

Not to mention, paid internships look better on resumes. Working somewhere that respected you enough to pay you will look great to a future employer.

Paid internships offer you the opportunity to live in different places. With a salary, you might be able to afford to live in a different city for the summer, or abroad. Unpaid internships, even with a grant from LC, will stretch your wallet thin if you try to stretch your legs.

DO YOUR THING, JUST MAKE SURE YOU’RE AHEAD OF THE GAME

In the end, all that matters is that you enjoy what you do. If you’re content to overwork yourself for free, or just for a line on your resume, so be it. My advice to you: push to get paid. It’s worth it. Not only for the respect your coworkers will have for you as someone on their level, but so you can go to happy hour after work and not freak out about your bank account.

Not all unpaid internships are evil, or a waste of time and energy. But think about this: both the Associated Students of Lewis & Clark and The Pioneer Log offer paid positions for cabinet and staff members. Student Life and Campus Living interns get free housing; summer science research students get a stipend.

You’re worth something, so fight for it.

And make sure that unpaid internship is not only ethical, but legal.

According to The Department of Labor, the following six legal criteria must be applied when making a determination if an internship is required to be paid.

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

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