More and more university graduates are struggling to find career applications for their degrees, despite how ‘flexible’ degrees were thought to be. As a result, many make the decision to apply for college programs after graduation in an effort to acquire the ‘hands-on’ career-specific skills that are required for many jobs. Recognizing this trend as a clear opportunity, many universities, including London’s Western University, have developed diploma programs designed to bridge the gap between academia and the ‘real world.’ The cornerstone of these programs is the highly coveted (and simultaneously controversial) internship. As a means of making strategic connections and learning about an industry, company, or organization, internships can undoubtedly be beneficial, sometimes for both for the intern and the host. However ‘beneficial’ the experience can be, it is impossible to ignore the giant green elephant in the room: compensation, or lack thereof. 

The strategic use of language in the development and marketing of these diploma programs is incredibly important. Often, the word ‘internship’ is replaced with ‘practicum’ so as to signify a different experience. Unpaid internships have garnered a great deal of negative attention over the past decade as increasing numbers of capable graduates are unable to secure employment. Specifically, many feel used by companies who have essentially exploited their labor under the guise of ‘potential career development’. Despite its synonymity, the word ‘practicum’ is fresher, signifying something less negative. With that said, millennials are, as the advertising industry is aware, acutely cognizant of marketing and are more likely to question the validity of what they are told. As a result, many students are wary of the practicum model, understanding that they will likely be working for free with little to no promise of advancement or employment of any kind.

So, why do so many choose to undergo the internship experience anyway? This question answers itself: for the experience. The notoriety attached the role of an intern undoubtedly creates discomfort among applicants (we’ve all seen The Devil Wears Prada). But, if selected strategically and executed properly, an unpaid internship can be fruitful. Selecting a placement based on positive connections rather than ‘prestige’ or perceived acumen is crucial. It is important not to be persuaded by big names; in fact, Forbes concluded that larger, more-renowned companies are in many cases more likely to exploit their interns. With a sea of applicants that grows deeper and larger each day, the adage ‘a dime a dozen’ must wash over the minds of recruiters and managers alike.

For the experience to be ‘successful’, the ‘right fit’ needs to be established. Additionally, the right attitude needs to be adopted. It can be difficult to mentally push past the fact that your daily efforts are not being financially compensated, but it is important to recognize all of the other benefits that can be reaped. Connections, industry knowledge, and corporate exposure are just the tip of the iceberg. Despite having honed critical thinking and communication skills during their undergrad, many students express that they feel unprepared to enter the workplace after graduation. A good internship can function as a transition period – a truly unique learning experience in which substantial growth can take place, paid or not. Plus, there can be added incentives and perks including transportation passes, event invitations, and catered lunches.

With that said, there are definitely drawbacks outside of the aforementioned ethical debate surrounding unpaid labor. It is important to note that these cons are not only applicable to the intern, but also to the business and corporations who host them. Accepting an unpaid internship could make you less employable. A recent survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (USA) concluded that those who completed paid internships had an advantage over those who had unpaid internships. For starters, 63.1% of paid interns were offered a job after graduation, while only 37% of unpaid interns were offered a job. Most interestingly, that figure is only minutely higher than the 35% who were offered a job with no internship experience at all. Additionally, unpaid internships contribute to the youth unemployment crisis (as many entry-level jobs are filled by free labor) and the student debt crisis. Interestingly, unpaid internships can also hurt the businesses that use them. While undergoing the experience provides free labor and valuable connections with academic institutions, it can also limit the diversity of their employment candidates as many students are unable to apply. Intern exploitation has led some companies into PR crises as society is quick to jump on corporations caught in the act.

So who do unpaid internships really benefit, if anyone at all? Despite this controversy, an increasing number of graduates accept unpaid placements, whether they are part of a diploma/college program or not. Does this experience offer real value outside of financial compensation, or do desperate times call for desperate measures?