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TMCNet:  Catch-22 for college students: Can you afford an unpaid internship?: College students struggle to gain experience and pay their bills

[July 30, 2009]

Catch-22 for college students: Can you afford an unpaid internship?: College students struggle to gain experience and pay their bills

Jul 30, 2009 (Sun Sentinel - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- When Palm Beach Atlantic University senior Kristina Webb, 23, decided to take an unpaid internship at a newspaper this summer, she thought she could make it work. She would live at home, get a part-time job, and cut back her spending. Her parents offered to help her pay for food and gas.


But then Kristina's father got laid off from his construction job, the family budget tightened, and Kristina did not hear back from any of 35 part-time jobs she applied to. Blame it on the economy.

"Everybody's hurting, employers and students," said Dawn Howard, Associate Director of the Career Development Center at Florida Atlantic University.

As companies cut costs, the number of internship opportunities offered nationwide has dropped 21 percent from last year, according to the Pennsylvania-based National Association of Colleges and Employers. Many that remain are unpaid.

"We used to pay, but we're not doing that anymore," said Tom Triozzi, senior vice president of BankAtlantic, which stopped paying interns in 2008 when the economy took a downturn.

"We ask them to work for free for a great work experience," Triozzi said.

It's this desire for experience that pushes students like Kristina to intern. "I know that if I don't, it's going to be harder for me to get a job in the future," Webb said. So she got a job pet-sitting and interns several times a week at the Palm Beach's Town-Crier newspaper, without pay.

"It's really frustrating, especially since I actually produce content for the Town-Crier," Webb said. "But it's definitely worth it." More than ever, internships are viewed as the surest route to a job after graduation. "Having an internship is absolutely essential," said Christine Childers, director of Career Development at Lynn University, who advises, "Whatever it takes, it's important that students do it." But as the recession drags on, it's taking a lot more than it used to, leaving students in a bind. They are told that internships are essential, no matter the cost, but as opportunities shrink and costs rise, they're forced to ask: is this worth it? "If a student is in a hardship situation, payment can make a difference between whether they can intern or not," Childers said.

For some, working for free is simply not possible.

"It denies low income kids an opportunity," said Barbara Pippin, special assistant to the president for governmental relations at Broward College. "Internships are similar to what study abroad programs used to be: if you had money, you could go." For these students, internships become part of a daily balancing act. "They have to juggle work and school and internships, along with their other responsibilities, just to put in two or three hours, just so they can say 'I did this,'" Pippin said.

It's a familiar situation for Amir Arab, 23. He had an unpaid internship last summer before being hired at a Miami financial company. Despite the positive experience, he said, one summer of unpaid work was enough. "I have a mortgage, and I have a daughter," he said.

"No one is going to pay my bills." There is some good news, however. Companies like Target have kept their internship programs running -- and paying -- despite the sluggish economy, realizing the value of internships as recruiting tools.

"We get a lot of great talent," said Victor Rota, group campus recruiter for Target. "Seventy to eighty percent of them come back to work for us, so the return on the investment is there." Moreover, companies that offer paid internships are increasing the hourly wage by 5 percent, moving the national average to $17.13 per hour, according to NACE. "That reflects an understanding that interns may need more money than they did before," said Carolyn Wise, senior education editor for Vault Inc, career information provider and publisher of The Vault Guide to Top Internships.

Students taking unpaid internships are encouraged to ask for help, Wise said. "Sometimes companies will work with you to ease the financial burden. There are also a number of colleges that offer summer fellowships to cover internship expenses," she said.

While internships remain important even in a time of financial hardship and job scarcity, students are asked to balance humility with a sense of self-worth. "Students have to show a willingness to work hard," Childers said. "But at the same time, they need to be valued, and if employers can pay them, then they should." Staff writer Jessica Carballo can be reached at 954-356-4825 or jcarballo@sunsentinel.com.

To see more of the Sun Sentinel or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.sun-sentinel.com/. Copyright (c) 2009, Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email tmsreprints@permissionsgroup.com, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.

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