Students talk value of unpaid internships

In her four years of undergrad, Michelle Hanrahan completed 11 internships — eight without a paycheck. 

“Someone has to do the dirty work, and everyone has to pitch in, but that should balance out with new experiences and learning opportunities as well,” Hanrahan said. “If that does not balance out, I would call that an unfair internship.”

“Internship” is a buzzword in college, and 55 percent of graduates in 2012 had internship or co-op experience, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Of the interns who were unpaid, 41 received at least one job offer. According to the NACE study, 63 percent of interns who were paid received at least one job offer upon graduation. This affects hundreds of thousands of young people each year. ProPublica reported in July that between 500,000 and 1 million people intern for free every year. The benefits of working for free, however, are not concrete.

As a freshman, Hanrahan, who graduated in 2011, completed internships at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) and North Way Christian Community, Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry, University of Pittsburgh Emerging Leaders and Nuru International to name a few. 

Void of exploitation, Hanrahan said unpaid internships can be worth the experience.

“Internships are meant to introduce you to the business world in which you strive to be part of one day,” she said. “If that is not being achieved on a minimal level, then something needs to be re-evaluated.”

Employers seeking interns should consider the value that an intern brings, says Emily Dvorchak, when monetary compensation is a potential option.

Dvorchak, a senior marketing major at Pitt, started her first unpaid internship during the fall of her junior year with the nonprofit Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in Pittsburgh.

“Most nonprofits have very limited budgets that don’t allow them to pay interns, and I was fully aware of that when I began the search process,” Dvorchak said. “I never expected to get paid.”

The workload, she said, was equivalent to the work she did at a previous paid internship with the NFM Group, an advertising agency in Pittsburgh.

“It’s true that the amount of work I did at CFF was probably equivalent to the workload at a paid internship, if not more,” Dvorchak said. “I rarely had idle time at CFF and never left a shift early.”

While working for CFF, Dvorchak built her marketing portfolio with nonprofit marketing experiences, aligning with her career aspirations at the time.

“I created a lot of work that I can put into a portfolio. It gave me confidence and helped me figure out more of what I wanted to do,” Dvorchak said.

Dvorchak was accepted into a second unpaid internship with Marie Curie Cancer Care in London the following summer by studying abroad through Pitt. While interning, she promoted an organization that provides care and support to terminally ill patients. There, she felt the workload was more legitimate, considering the fact that she wasn’t being paid. 

“It felt fair because I did slightly less work at Marie Curie than at the CFF internship,” Dvorchak said. “Sometimes it seemed like they wanted me to learn about the organization more so than work for them, and there were several instances where I got to attend out-of-office events during my scheduled shifts.”

She met with various people within Marie Curie that gave her useful career advice and shed light on what their specific jobs entailed.

“I got to do informational interviews with people in other departments just to get a sense of what their jobs entailed and why they mattered for the organization,” Dvorchak said. “During informational interviews, I found that most marketing firms don’t hire students with no internship experience.”

Dvorchak received academic credit while interning with Marie Curie, she said, which made an unpaid internship worth her time.

“I was being paid in academic credit, so that helped me justify the hours I put in,” Dvorchak said.

Monique Briones currently holds a paid internship doing product management at Thomson Reuters. Briones, a senior English writing and economics major, works across departments, she said, and can’t imagine not getting paid for what she does. 

“I don’t think unpaid internships are fair considering the work I often hear associated with them, which is usually on par with entry-level jobs,” Briones said.

Though he completed it several years ago, John Trenz, a professor of written and professional communication at Pitt, valued his unpaid summer internship at the Andy Warhol Museum. He felt the hours spent were well worth it because of the unique experience he was receiving.

Trenz’s internship allowed him to “research and explore how to convey the cultural significance of Warhol’s films to different types of potential museum patrons” and work in collaboration with the curator of education and the curator of film and video.

“It was a unique internship with a very well-defined project, which I was very grateful for. It was not paid, but the work meant something to me — particularly, I was able to see a lot of films that were not and have not been available to the general public on the market,” Trenz said.

Like Trenz, Dvorchak expresses her gratitude for the unpaid internships but recognizes that, at this point, she doesn’t feel she should accept an unpaid internship because of her wealth of experience.

“I feel I could no longer settle for being paid with experience only because I already have a lot of experience under my belt,” Dvorchak said. “My skills are valuable enough to merit a paycheck.”