Column: Internships must provide compensation, along with experience for students

By Charles Leineweber

OSU Daily Barometer, Oregon State U. via UWIRE

Believe it or not, the end of the year is just around the corner. Granted, we have just barely eclipsed the halfway point in the academic calendar, but it never hurts to prepare for the future.

With more students in college and more competition for positions, this has become the time of year for students to line up to apply for internships, jobs or studying opportunities for the upcoming spring, summer and fall. Today, in order to get the job or internship you desire, whether you are graduating or just filling time between school sessions, you need to apply early and often.

In a limping economy, many students and recent graduates hope to find jobs or internships to supplement their income and help put a dent in the financial burden associated with attending a university. But many employers are unwilling to hire inexperienced young workers, or claim they cannot afford to add another name to their payroll.

So many then opt for the unpaid internship, in which young interns are not financially rewarded for their work but are paid in experience, or even class credit, with the possibility of being hired after the internship is complete. In essence, these companies and organizations are getting free labor.

With paid internships and entry-level jobs at a minimum, many students and recent grads are forced into taking these positions, hoping to advance on to full employment but receiving no guarantees for months at a time. Not only can this be frustrating, as many students and young adults would prefer not to be a full-time volunteer, but it can also greatly hinder the development of those involved. Many are forced to put off beginning a career or even living on their own as their financial needs cannot be met by unpaid or low-paying internships and entry-level jobs.

There are well-paying opportunities out there, however. The MECOP/CECOP program ran through Oregon State, Portland State and OIT offers the chance for engineering students to work full-time at a company while receiving full pay and benefits.

While it occupies two terms of school, forcing participants to graduate late, the experience and the handsome paycheck offset any harsh side effects this may create. Students get the whole employee experience for six months while furthering their education through hands-on training, and in return actually get paid for their contributions. This unique blend of public education, private industry and the engineering profession is unfortunately quite rare.

Of course, internships and jobs are available for other disciplines, but not to the great extent as those for engineering. Obviously the dearth of job opportunities for non-engineers may contribute to this, but paid internships for any academic discipline should not be a foreign concept.

Unpaid internships can be helpful in gaining experience, but they should only be used when in conjunction with academic courses or in a part-time setting. A part-time internship used as part of an educational curriculum could be mutually beneficial for the student and organization involved. The student gets to work in a setting related to their field as part of their academic course, and the organization gets assistance and training for future professionals.

But relying on an unpaid internship as the only source of experience or employment would be both ineffective and financially immature. As a standalone endeavor, the unpaid internship relies only on intrinsic motivation, meaning that unless you truly love it and are already in a somewhat financially stable situation, your rewards may be severely lacking.

As more students attempt to enter the workplace, and the lack of quality paying jobs and internships becomes evident, the use of unpaid work needs to be examined. Using the promise of experience and the possibility of promotion, many organizations are able to get young workers to contribute without compensation. And while gaining experience and making connections can be a valuable tool for a young worker, receiving proper compensation for work is pretty valuable too.

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