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Guest Post: The Good News and Bad News About Unpaid Internships in California

By Alexa Kern, Student at San Francisco State University 

I’ve been pursuing my bachelor’s degree for five years. I should graduate in one year. Like so many of my peers, I’ll leave school with loan debt. And while I blame the Great Recession a good deal, I also think other factors — such as unpaid internships that seem to be the norm around San Francisco, where I live — are part of the reason.

I landed my first internship during my senior year of high school as part of an elective course. A family friend helped me find the position. That internship led to others and now, almost five years later, I have interned at a couple of other places — but they have all been unpaid.

Unpaid internships often require big trade-offs..

I’ve chosen unpaid internships to gain the skills I’ll need after graduating. I ultimately want a job in politics or advocacy. It’s really tough to land part-time work while in school and it’s not enough these days to graduate without work experience.

A new report by Young Invincibles called Through Their Eyes: The Challenges Facing Young Workers in California’s Post-Recession Economy finds that “an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 people intern in the US each year, and employers generally prefer to hire people with previous internship experience.”

A good internship is educational, allows room for personal growth and provides excellent networking.  For starters, it teaches you how a typical office setting runs and how to deal with workplace dynamics. You learn how to become professional, use discrepancy and learn about workplace relationships with coworkers and bosses. You learn basic office management skills, how to use phone systems and basic computer programs.  I’ve been very lucky and I’ve worked extremely hard in all of my internships so that I will develop the skills to build a career.

Last year, I ended my internships by moving to New York and completing a correspondence internship with a major foundation. I enjoyed the educational component of it. I heard from guest speakers weekly and benefited from workshops that helped me improve my skills, such as job interviewing.

Over the years during internships, I’ve assumed a wide range of roles. I’ve been a secretary, office assistant, event coordinator, web designer, and I’ve been responsible for graphic design and correspondence.  I’ve also been the coffee runner, the Facebook photo editor, the call screener and the newsletter writer. I’ve helped constituents with problems, greeted office guests, sorted the mail and so much more.

The problem with so many internships is that they are unpaid. Some internships will cover the cost of food and travel but most won’t. It’s difficult for students to take on unpaid internships while also needing a job that pays, especially in a city like San Francisco with disproportionately high rent and cost of living.

Working for free is not ideal. Unpaid internships do not provide long-term benefits, such as higher entry salaries. But as long as internships are accepted by California as a way to get quality work experience, the government should take some steps to assess their impact.

As authors Brian Burrell and Reid Setzer note in their report, “the California Department of Labor should conduct an employer survey to explore the impact of unpaid interns on the California economy.” And while the state has a test to determine whether internship experiences are generating genuine value for their participants, which seems important, it is unclear whether the test is being enforced.

And to all of the unpaid interns out there who are reading this: wherever you work, make sure that you are not taken advantage. This means avoiding working long hours that exceed the requirements and educational benefits of the intern program. Working an extra event on the weekend occasionally is fine. But generally, you need to take control and stand up for yourself.

Sometimes paid employees do not take unpaid interns seriously or view unpaid interns as co-workers. That has happened to me before and it feels lousy. But then there are staff members who will offer to be mentors, who believe in you, and want to help you grow professionally. And that can make all the difference.