Brittany Mayes needed only an internship to complete her music business degree. But entertainment agencies rarely offer paid experiences to students, leaving the Indiana State University student 150-miles from home with a depleted bank account. Mayes' father helped her pay for rent, groceries, gas and other expenses, support unavailable to many students.
As some companies choose to make their internships unpaid, students like Mayes must make tough decisions regarding their professional experiences. Though uncompensated internships provide valuable experience in the field, they often come at great cost.
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) 2011 Student Survey, nearly 50 percent of college seniors' internships were unpaid. Although the percentage of unpaid internships has not changed dramatically in recent years, the financial strain on parents and students has, due to the economy and rising student debt.
The NACE survey also found that students with unpaid internships receive fewer full-time job offers. This was true for Mayes, who finished her internship at Word Entertainment in Nashville in March. After graduating from Indiana State University, she applied to numerous jobs within the agency but had no response.
Paid interns may be offered full-time jobs more because of the assigned duties, said Jacqueline Taylor, director of the Vocatio Center for Life Calling and Career at Union University, in Jackson, Tenn. Students who receive compensation for their work often perform more professional tasks and projects, while many companies assign unpaid interns administrative duties.
Though students may struggle financially for the duration of the internship, Taylor thinks that working hard without compensation demonstrates character.
"Students who excel, problem solve and share their gifts to the betterment of their team without pay reveal a unique character which indicates to the employer that the student is more interested in learning, contributing and serving, rather than financial gain," she said.
Unpaid experiences allow students to display characteristics of resilience, adaptability and initiative, traits that employers look for in future leaders, Taylor said.
William Collier, a senior at Union with a double major in economics and political science, recently completed an internship in Washington D.C. with Manna, Inc., a nonprofit housing and community development organization. The decision to forego a conventional summer job for a more professional experience challenged Collier, who had to postpone saving money for the upcoming semester. Despite the difficulties, Collier believes he made the right choice because the work experience was invaluable.
"While some students may be hesitant to work for nothing in return, they should be mindful of the professional skills and life lessons that so often accompany internships," he said.
Though Manna, Inc. offered Collier a job after graduation, he declined. But he believes the opportunity will open other doors as his career advances: "Along with the real-world experience I gained, I made lasting connections with my supervisors and learned a great deal about myself and the career I want to pursue."
Although only half of college seniors with internships got paid for their work, Nathan Parcells, co-founder of online resource InternMatch, says that paid experiences benefit both students and employers. Not only do students gain professional experience while working towards financial goals, but companies can be selective in choosing high quality interns. This often leads to increased full-time hire rates, which helps companies' reputations, Parcells said.
But some employers wrongly assume that all internships are unpaid, he said. For students wishing, or perhaps needing, some form of compensation, Parcells encourages them to negotiate wages with employers in certain circumstances, especially when students display proficient skills and work ethic.
When it comes time to choose between an internship and a temporary job, it's crucial to evaluate whether the projects and responsibilities within an internship will provide a high quality career opportunity, Taylor said. If so, she encourages students to move forward with the internship, whether it pays or not: "There is no substitute for gaining quality, hands-on professional experience in the real world of work."