Paid or unpaid? The internship question

By Ben Hoagland

Alanna Moriarty, ’17, has an unpaid internship at Pride Center of Vermont. She often sorts data (top), but helps helps with other tasks around the office. This week Moriarty went through photo frames to present silent auction prizes.  Photo by Madeline Hughes.
Alanna Moriarty, ’17, has an unpaid internship at Pride Center of Vermont. She often sorts data. Photo by Madeline Hughes.

College students have undoubtedly heard it before; internships serve as valuable experiences for students to progress into their professional careers. For many students at St. Michael’s, internships are irreplaceable experiences filled with personal and professional development. But for others, internships can come at a financial cost, prohibiting students from taking them in the first place.

In today’s job market, it is no surprise that internship experience can be a deciding factor in hiring; however, not all internships are viewed the same by employers.

In 2014, a study by The National Association of Colleges and Employers’ (NACE) found 61 percent of graduating seniors across the country had participated in internships. Of those students, 46.5 percent of the internships were unpaid.

In an additional study in 2016, the NACE concluded that the students who had taken paid internships were more likely to receive offers for full time employment than those who opted for unpaid internships. Paid internships for private, for profit business alone yielded a 72 percent job offer rate for full time employment, while 43.9 percent of unpaid internships resulted in a job offer.

Compensated and uncompensated internships in for-profit companies aren’t the only ones with substantial differences in job offer rates. In fact, this trend is evident throughout the career spectrum, ranging from nonprofit, to local and federal government internships as well.

Meg Sealey, the internship coordinator at St. Michael’s, weighed in on internship options while offering guidance to students looking to take unpaid positions. “If the internship is unpaid, [students] should be really clear with the employer up front in terms of the number of hours they can commit to it,” Sealey said. “Have a number in mind. And let the employer know that they’re going to have to work on top of that internship.”

According to Sealey, unpaid internships require on average 12 hours of commitment each week. Unlike paid positions, these internships require students to spend a fraction of the time necessary at paid internships. Although paid internships will likely provide a student with a better chance of landing a job after college, the time commitment they require is substantially larger than unpaid positions.

In some instances, however, unpaid internships have evolved into paying positions. Emily Joyce, a sophomore at St. Michael’s studying biochemistry, has interned at the University of Vermont in the graduate neuroscience research laboratory in recent months. Come June, Joyce will be joining her colleagues in the laboratory for full time, compensated work during the summer. The position comes after months of volunteer work by Joyce. Although the position does not provide academic credit, it has helped Joyce advance in her field and resulted in full-time work.

For many students at St. Michael’s, interning without compensation is a common financial challenge. Although some internships may include temporary housing or food stipends, it is frequently up to the student to provide for themselves financially while interning. Sean Flynn, ’20, is in the process of applying for a summer internship as a camp counselor at Windells Academy, a popular ski camp. Unlike most internships, the position will include housing, food and a small living stipend. “I’d rather take less money for more experience” Flynn said. Although Windells will be paying Flynn less than his previous summer job, he sees the unique experience as worth the lack of pay.

For the majority of students at St. Michael’s, internships are about experience and accreditation, rather than compensation. Braden Kerwin, ’17, has been interning at the Mansfield House in Burlington (An organization since early February. Unlike Flynn’s position, Kerwin’s internship is entirely unpaid, and does not require full time commitment. According to Kerwin, the unpaid internship has been both a beneficial experience and a necessary one to fulfill the school’s experiential learning requirement – which was recently cut.

For Kerwin, the internship is also more than a requirement for his major. It is fulfilling his interest in the organization and field he’s interning in. The organization provides educational and recreational activities for college students with learning disabilities.

“A lot of the reason I jumped into this internship was because it was an area I wanted to learn more about and I felt very connected to this program,” Kerwin said. Regardless of the compensation and accreditation, Kerwin, like many other students, feels the experience of interning is worth the time and effort.

According to Sealey, students’ experience is the number one goal while interning, while payment and benefits are secondary. For Kerwin, Joyce and many other students, internships yielded the best results when the students taking them had a genuine interest in the organization and area of study .