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Internships: Job Opportunity, Educational Piece, or Both?

June 25, 2014 By Nick Stumo-Langer, Undergraduate Research Fellow

This undergraduate research fellowship is the second internship I’ve had and, at the risk of brown-nosing, I have to say: I’ve been truly fortunate in my internship opportunities. In both of my internships, I have been given significant tasks that have contributed to my growth academically and professionally.

As droves of college students (including myself) flock into office buildings for the summer, we each confront the question, “Is this another college course, or is it my first experience into the professional job market?”

As frequently happens in these matters, the answer is both and, somehow, neither.

Internships in a wide variety of job settings help students determine their career paths, but their original core value is as an educational tool. Instead of the typical vision of interns picking up dry cleaning or getting coffee for intimidating bosses, the internship offers a valuable opportunity for students to pursue and gain experience in a field they are interested in.

Students accomplish this without locking themselves into one career path. Just because an opportunity sounds fascinating does not guarantee that it will be enjoyable as a potential career, and students deserve to try that out.

Internships offer a unique testing period for different careers and professional training; however, they should be considered a part of the education process as well.

The Low-Income, Internship Gap

While internships can be great for Minnesota’s students, too often these opportunities are only available to high-income students who can afford to take an unpaid or underpaid internship.

Because the benefits of internships also appeal to students who must work for pay during the summertime, most, if not all, colleges and universities in Minnesota offer some form of funding for a limited number of students participating in unpaid or underpaid internships.

Offering some students enough funding to get by, however, is not enough. Students in low-income situations also need to consider where they can find affordable housing (such as living with their parents),what transit options exist to get to their internship and whether they will still need a part-time job to make up for the costs incurred by their unpaid opportunity.

The major corporations in Minnesota have done a decent job of ensuring that Minnesota’s students have meaningful experiences that pay a living wage, but we can and should do more to ensure that all students have access to some sort of internship experience. In 2010, the federal Department of Labor released new regulations for the classification of unpaid internships in the for-profit sector. Unpaid internships take on a specific definition thanks to the Department of Labor based on six criteria: The internship must 1) simulate training in the employment facility, 2) benefit the intern, 3) not displace regular employees, 4) derive no immediate advantage for the employer from the intern (operations may even be impeded), 5) not necessarily ensure a job to the intern and 6) ensure that both the employer and intern understand the intern is not entitled to a wage.

Target Corporation offers a number of different internships at their headquarters in Minneapolis that are both a substantial foray into a professional career as well as an educational experience. This is all accomplished by paying their interns a living wage during their time with the company in exchange for grooming the students for potential hiring after college and giving them substantial, engaging tasks.

The Department of Labor’s regulations do not necessarily apply to the opportunities I have had (both of my internships being in non-profits), nor to Target’s program. Minnesota’s Department of Higher Education can take a more involved role in promoting students’ internship opportunities.

Career and Educational Benefits of Internships

Employers have remarked on the fact that, in making hiring decisions, they favor those applicants who have either interned with the employer before or have experience relevant to the position in question from an internship. This is not the case with all interns obviously, but it proves that internship opportunities are beneficial in attaining a job after college and should be available to all students.

College and university career centers also tout the benefits of internships and encourage their students to have up to three or four internships in a variety of different environments to gauge whether the jobs match their interests and career aspirations.
Some of the most important learning done in an internship is not the job specific details, but rather exploring the work environment, networks and professional standards of each new foray into the world of careers. This invaluable knowledge assists students in their job search and informs their course choices and academic goals at school. The learning and personal growth come in part from positive opportunities, but perhaps even more so from negative experiences in a job setting.

With employer, college and student advocation of the benefits internships hold, it should be a clear signal that Minnesota should be doing all it can for its students.

Students should not be overly concerned with getting the singular, perfect internship but should be open to exploring what works best for their learning style and career interests. Internships have benefits - there’s no doubt about that - but it is the duty of colleges and universities, the Minnesota Office of Higher Education and the corporations and companies that hold these opportunities to ensure that all students have access to these opportunities. 


Editor's note:  Nick's too nice to call it out, but the fact that Minnesota 2020's unpaid internships are legal doesn't exempt us from the ethical considerations raised in the article. Because we have not yet found a way to raise money to fund our undergraduate and graduate fellows program, many potentially talented policy thinkers from less privileged backgrounds are excluded from participating, to the detriment of our organization's diversity and range of experience. In the meantime, we continue to work to make our internships meaningful for participants, and flexible enough to accomodate outside work schedules.  

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