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Unpaid Internships Aren’t so Black and White

By / 8.8.2013

Does having a paid internship make the difference between getting a job and sitting home after college? It depends.

Unpaid internships have been criticized as a waste of students’ time,  effort, and money. Now it appears holding an unpaid internship won’t even help a student on the job market. An upcoming study from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) on the graduating class of 2013 found 63.1% of graduating college students who had paid internships received a job offer, compared with 37.0% of those who took only unpaid internships and 35.2% of students who had taken no internships.

However, although job offers may seem like a straightforward measure of an internship’s impact, but the reality is not so black and white. There are many factors that influence whether a college graduate has a job offer at graduation, of which internships are just one. Moreover, there is also a wide variety of internships, and an equally diverse number of reasons students chose to take them.

Certainly not all internships are created equal.  For some employers, internships are explicitly used as a screening process for new hires. These employers may invest more time and effort to see which interns would make good employees, and so provide interns with substantive tasks and compensation.

Such ‘screening’ internship programs make the most sense for employers who continually need new hires with a technical skill set. So it is little surprise that the majority of paid internships are for majors who are typically hired in large numbers at entry-level. As the chart below shows, engineering majors, computer science majors, engineering technology majors, and business- related majors were far more likely to have a paid internships- with comparatively high wages- than other majors. The data is from Intern Bridge’s 2012 survey of college students.

But by itself this chart can be misleading.  Some majors’ career paths are inherently different than others, and this is not reflected in either the Intern Bridge or NACE data. For example, neither one reports the percent of students who intend to go straight to graduate school rather than enter the workforce. For some students, the primary purpose of an internship is not to receive an immediate job offer, but rather to build a professional network or explore a particular field of work.

The reality is the payoff for participating in an internship – whether paid or unpaid – varies from student to student. The greatest benefit of an internship is not measurable in wages, but by how much it furthers a student’s career aspirations. It would be a mistake for college students to use the NACE and Intern Bridge survey results as an excuse to sit home and do nothing. That will almost assuredly hurt their job prospects.