Can You Afford To Be A Summer Intern?

Rebecca Han was set to spend the summer as an unpaid intern at a consulting firm. Whatever she lacked in terms of pay, she knew she'd earn in valuable experience that would eventually give her a leg up in an increasingly competitive job market. But, like so many other young people in a difficult economy, Han, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Michigan, will have to put pragmatic concerns over career aspirations this summer. Her mother, who is the family's breadwinner, lost her job last spring and has been unable to find another. And a month before school was to start this year, Han found out she wouldn't receive $3,300 in now discontinued state scholarships. "I never thought that I would have to worry as much about money," she says.

Nobody is immune from the anxieties brought on by the Great Recession, but the impact on college students is particularly onerous. Unpaid internships have been around for decades, though in the past few years they've increasingly been viewed as an essential rite of passage into a fiercely competitive job market. Between 1992 and 2008, the number of students who'd had internships grew from 9 percent to more than 80 percent, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Today, they're necessary just to "be a contender," says to Leslie Kohlberg, director of letters and science career services at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Unpaid internships have become such an expected college ritual that their numbers are actually on the rise, to the point that federal and state regulators have begun looking into employer abuse of the programs. Investigators are finding that many firms and companies are illegally using them for free labor, making students do menial tasks like making coffee and sweeping floors while not even paying them minimum wage.

Despite the indignities of some of the work, students who can afford to are still more than willing to work for free. It's a smart move. Many employers are converting internships to full-time hires at a higher rate than ever, according to Kohlberg. "Employers are increasingly telling us that without an internship, it is extremely difficult for students to make that first cut," she adds.

But the same tight economy that's made job competition so tight—and therefore internships so vital—has also made working for free simply impossible for students like Han, who can't rely on their parents for financial help and can't get through college without contributing substantially to their tuition. The implications are potentially life-changing, and stand to impact future generations. "Lower socioeconomic students can't afford the experience that the wealthier can and that gap is widening with the recession," says Richard Bottner, president of Intern Bridge in Boston, a college recruiting, research, and consulting firm focusing on paid internships. What's more, many upper-class students already have a leg up when it comes to job seeking, he says, since they've often got better connections. In the past, when interns were more likely to be compensated, students from a lower-socioeconomic background were given a similar opportunity for networking—an opportunity that many will now miss out on.

For some, the solution is to team an internship with a paying job, foregoing ritual night-time socializing with fellow interns to moonlight. Some 77 percent of students say they need to work second jobs in order to also take part in an unpaid internship, according to the Intern Bridge report.

Jaeki Cho, a 20-year-old journalism major at Fordham University, juggled a 20-hour-a-week magazine internship with a job at a retail store. His father practices holistic medicine and has seen his earnings impacted by the recession, so Cho is expected to foot the bill for food and basic living expenses. He said he would obviously have been happier if he had enough money to have done just the internship, but that it was worth the juggle, since the internship taught him more about his future industry than he could learn in any college class. It was crucial to building a relationship with editors and learning how to deal with professionals in the business. Plus, he says it gave him a lens into "what a real-life job experience can offer." It's a good solution, but it's tough to make the most of an internship—and impress a future boss—when you're exhausted from working two jobs, says Kohlberg.

Rebecca Han wishes she had the chance to get real-world experience in her chosen career, and make those vital connections that could lead to future employment. Though she recently lined up a part-time research position with a business-school professor that she'll be teaming with a paying job, it's outside her field of interest and she says it won't give her an edge when looking for a full-time position. "It does concern me that I will not be able to have the opportunity to say I completed a summer internship," she says. But she believes—and hopes—that experience can come from other opportunities, and that internships may be overrated when it comes to finding a job. "I'm not sure what is truly the right answer," she says. "I guess I'll find out next year."