Opinion | Unpaid internships: When the costs outweigh the benefits

By Leah Mensch, Staff Columnist

With great encouragement from the University and future employers, many Pitt students sacrifice their prospective minimum wage earnings over the summer to instead commit to an unpaid internship. Employers want to see hands-on experience in the field, rather than just good grades. But for some students, the costs of unpaid internships outweigh the benefits — literally.

Unpaid internships are a socioeconomic privilege. For those who have little to no student debt and sufficient financial resources, working without pay is a small trade-off for them to spend a summer strengthening a resumé and gaining the hands-on experience that stands out so beautifully to employers.

But for the students who depend on the summer months as time to gather funds to pay off loans or put food in the fridge, the unpaid internship is nothing short of a burden. If Pitt wants to continue boasting inclusiveness along with their internship guarantee, they need to take additional steps to ensure students in financial need can utilize more opportunities without breaking the bank.

Though the School of Arts and Sciences strongly encourages interning, students majoring in architectural studies, urban studies and environmental studies cannot graduate without completing an internship, according to Pitt spokesperson Joe Miksch. The same goes for students majoring in media and professional communications, administration of justice or public service, or obtaining a nonprofit management certificate from the College of General Studies. The School of Social Work also requires field experience.

Additionally, most departments require capstone experiences for students to graduate, and many of the Capstone classes can be completed with an internship.

Pitt’s motivation in strongly encouraging internships is backed up by statistics. According to the Harvard Business Review, 39 percent of employers say that lack of experience in candidates contributes to their hiring shortages. Georgetown University researchers conducted a study in 2016 and found that 63 percent of students with a paid internship on their resumé received a job offer. In contrast, 37 percent of students with unpaid internships and only 35 percent of those who complete an internship as an undergraduate received a job offer before graduation.

Pitt doesn’t encourage internships to torture students. Internships provide hands-on experience in a workplace of choice that is not possible to gain through classroom experience. They challenge students to manage their time differently and test their own work ethics. The professional relationships are lasting resources when the intern goes on to find another internship or a full-time job.

But for students like sophomore psychology major Paige Ottaviano, an internship needs to provide her with more than just networking.

“As someone who is looking to intern for the first time, it’s hard to find something that is paid and will also help me advance my career path,” Ottaviano said. “And still, even if I do get a paid internship at some point, I likely wouldn’t make more than I could just working a normal job. I rely on the summer months to pay off my student loans.”

Pitt’s Internship Resource page lists a few funding opportunities for unpaid interns. The Pitt Advantage Grant is for students who have completed the OCC, and are pursuing an unpaid internship or study abroad experience over the summer. The actual grant is $1,500, which is better than nothing, but much less than a student would typically make holding a regular summer job. The average salary of a paid intern is about $13 an hour, according to data obtained by Indeed, meaning a student working a 12-week, part-time, paid internship would make at least $1,500 more.

The School of Social Work offers the Browne Leadership Fellowship grant. The highly competitive grant, open to all students enrolled at Pitt, is worth $3,000, and requires a one-credit mentorship under local leaders in justice throughout the spring semester. To choose a recipient, the board “looks for high-achieving students who committed to improving the public good and who demonstrate leadership capacity.”

Other grants listed on the site include the David C. Frederick Award, for students pursuing an unpaid public health internship, and the Anthony and Concocietta Ambrosia Award, for students interning with CBS in New York City. The recipient of the latter is expected to pay for housing in New York, which is not included in this $4,000 grant.

The grants, not only highly specific, scarce and difficult to obtain, also rarely consider basis of need upon evaluation of applicants. This is not to say that financially secure students do not deserve scholarships, but for the few resources the University offers, these grants ultimately need to go to students who otherwise would not be able to obtain an unpaid internship.

The University’s chancellor recently received a hefty five-year retention bonus. Though former chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg donated large percentages of his bonuses to the University, it is not clear whether Gallagher will put any of his $500,000 bonus toward Pitt.

Even a small sum of the salary bonus could help students hold internships. A student’s success in an internship benefits not only the student, but also the University as a whole.

Pitt should also review the criteria for unpaid internship scholarships. Until Pitt can offer additional grants and awards, basis of need must be a strong factor when choosing a recipient. Pitt should also list grants not affiliated with the University on the internship resource page.

“We are always interested in increasing the source of funding available to students,” Miksch said.

It would be a mistake for Pitt not to encourage internships. But the University also needs to do its part, recognize the socioeconomic factors that play into interning and provide the resources to make for a more inclusive internship experience.