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Experience Your Future, for Free

Paid or unpaid, internships are worth the experience

Crap. Well, that was a milder version of the expletive, (okay, maybe an entire string of expletives) that were running through my mind at lightning speed as I watched my Mac desktop go black without any warning. I had barely been the web editorial intern for Destination Weddings & Honeymoons magazine for an hour and already I was completely lost. After pressing the “on” button a few times, I crawled under my desk to see if any cords had become unplugged. It was in this frantic state that my boss, the editor-in-chief, found me at my forlorn cubicle and quizzically asked, “Kaitlyn, what are you doing?” I could practically see the subtext surrounding her question: “We’ve made a terrible mistake in hiring you, haven’t we?” This Grade A humiliation is the stuff that rom-coms such as Bridget Jones’s Diary are made of, and I lived it, dear reader.

This fall term marks my second unpaid internship within a publication company, and despite the minor hiccups such as the aforementioned desk incident, I have enjoyed learning about the industry and exploring the career options within the field. In addition to receiving academic credit, I can continue to entertain my fantasy that I am in fact Andy from The Devil Wears Prada (sans designer clothes and partner-in-crime, Stanley Tucci).

You can imagine my surprise then, when the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Student Survey for 2013 indicated that while 63.1 percent of paid interns received at least one job offer, only 37 percent of unpaid interns received such offers and 35.2 percent of students without any kind of internship also received at least one job offer. This survey yielded over 38,000 responses from college students, and 9,125 of those responses were seniors earning Bachelor’s degrees. Needless to say, reading these results left me horrified. With such little difference in job prospects for students with unpaid internships versus students without them, had I really been wasting my time these past few months toiling in a cubicle writing sugary blog posts and managing websites under a false pretense that I was securing my professional future?

Amidst my NACE-induced panic attack, however, I realized that the days of the unpaid internship may be numbered. I recalled what my former boss from my time at Where Orlando magazine had told me, “You’re a lucky girl, after you we will no longer be hiring interns here.” She had said this solemnly while slicing into a Publix chocolate cake with a plastic fork that read “Thank you, Kaitlyn” in shaky cursive. I sheepishly nodded and proceeded to chew noiselessly on a garish sugar flower with the rest of the staff in the conference room, where I had been interviewed for the position three months prior.

Besides dismal results from NACE, unpaid internships have been coming under much legal fire this past summer. Between the months of June and August, unpaid interns filed class-action lawsuits against major corporations such as Warner Music Group, Sony, NBC Universal, and Atlantic Recording under the pretext that job references, work experience, and resume listings in addition to academic credit did not alter the obligation to pay minimum wage. Clearly Where Orlando wanted to avoid legal action with their decision to no longer hire interns, and perhaps bribed me with cake? (It worked.) Although it is too soon to determine if these lawsuits will have an effect on the internship opportunities for the summer of 2014, I sincerely hope that the repercussions of these lawsuits are mild at worst. Yes, even despite the NACE results and despite these lawsuits, I still see substantial value in and am a major advocate of the unpaid internship experience.

The knowledge you gain in the workplace is completely different from what you learn inside a classroom. Immersing yourself in a workplace environment not only gets your foot in the door of that specific industry, it allows you to evaluate what you want in a career and what it will take to get you there.

You pick up a new skill set, you learn how to collaborate with colleagues that are older than you, and you establish a network of professional contacts. With today’s highly competitive job market, networking is absolutely essential, and who you know can go a long way in an interview process. Internship experience adds tremendous value to your resume, which in turn can open up doors to future internships, graduate schools, and fellowships. Not only does it demonstrate commitment, it can garner some invaluable letters of recommendation for future employers. Even if you completely abhor your internship, that’s progress. Finding out what you don’t like is just as important as finding out what you do like. Gaining work experience is more beneficial than any sum you’d earn under minimum wage. Now is the time to start paying your dues and working your way up to your dream job, because you can be damn sure no one is going to hand it to you. And when your hard work pays off? Priceless.

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