Students forfeit paychecks for unpaid internships

By Remy Samuels, Staff Writer

For many students, scrolling through internship opportunities on LinkedIn and Indeed can be a very stressful process. Finding a meaningful, paid internship that doesn’t include strenuous hours of busy work or delivering coffees to employees may be more difficult today than ever before — but the dreaded unpaid internship may not be dreaded by everyone.

Sara Green, a junior majoring in communication and public and professional writing, thinks the experiences and connections available through unpaid internships are not as easy to attain through paid ones.

“I learned some of the best internships are the ones that aren’t paid, whereas a lot of paid ones are a lot of busy work and you’re kind of the bottom tier,” Green said.

Green has interned with the Pittsburgh Knights — a professional esports team of the City of Champions, Pittsburgh — for the past seven months as a PR and communications intern. Her job includes anything from writing press releases to blogging and managing the company’s social media. Between going to the office and working from home, Green works 10 to 15 hours per week — and can only manage the schedule because her employers are sympathetic to her schedule as a student.

“It’s tiring and it does get exhausting, but usually they’re really understanding, especially since I’m in school,” Green said. “I had some health issues over the summer and they were really great about giving time to rest. Even now they’re always checking in on me and saying, ‘If you don’t have time to come today, that’s fine.’”

Green works a paid job to make up for her time spent with the Pittsburgh Knights — though she wishes she could be paid for her work there, it ultimately is not a deal breaker.

“I’m more in it for the experience than the money,” Green said. “Because I’m at the start-up level, I get to do more than any other intern I know. Like, I’m completely in charge of writing press releases and the blog posts. They’re gonna have me writing weekly emails to investors, so I don’t mind that I’m not being paid because I’m getting a lot more responsibility and creative freedom.”

But some argue that unpaid internships take advantage of students. An article in The Atlantic with the headline “Unpaid Internships: Bad for Students, Bad for Workers, Bad for Society” lists responses from readers, many of whom argue that by not providing stipends or salaries for internships, companies and organizations are preventing financially stressed students who can’t afford to work for free from seeking other opportunities.

Those who contributed to the article also argue that employers are essentially receiving free labor to utilize skills their interns already learned in college classes, such as writing, Photoshop, communication and Excel.

Joseph Miksch, the director of media relations at Pitt, said in an email that professional recruiters are more interested in the skills obtained from an internship than whether or not an applicant was paid.

“Compensation does not determine quality,” Miksch said. “The most important aspect of determining the best internship for you is not whether or not it is paid or unpaid, but whether or not you will be learning, growing and developing important skills and connections.”

Those values — learning and developing skills — are why Alyce Palko decided on her internship. Palko, a junior public and professional writing major, is currently interning at a group within the Clinical and Translational Science Institute called Pitt+Me, which is a newsletter sent to people who want to participate in clinical trials. Similar to Green, Palko said the fact that she wouldn’t be compensated for this internship wasn’t a main priority for her.

“At the time I was looking for an internship, I wanted to get something where I could do a lot of writing because I’m taking it for credit,” Palko said. “Besides that, I was looking for something where I could do science or research because I’m looking into going into public health.”

Palko and Green aren’t alone. According to Pitt’s Career Center’s most recent internship survey conducted in 2017, 41 percent of students reported their most recent internship as unpaid. The National Association of College and Employers also reports on its website that though unpaid internships don’t add to students’ bank accounts, they are not without value.

A study by NACE at the University of Georgia Career Center revealed that of 3,000 students, 85 percent of them in recent years reported that their unpaid internships were highly beneficial to their career development — one of the main reasons Palko chose her internship.

Palko calls this experience an “investment into [her] career,” and that the communication and time management skills that she’s learning are what’s really valuable to her. Her advice for any students who are struggling to find internships is to keep an open mind and not be afraid to reach out to employers, even if the field may be out of your comfort zone.

“I think keeping your eyes out, going to panels and just listening to what people have to say [is a good strategy],” Palko said. “If something catches your ear and you think, ‘Oh, that’s really cool,’ then just go talk to the person. You’ll never know where it will lead.”