The unpaid internship dilemma
By Alexandra Brower

Unpaid internships are usually accepted and considered a go-to opportunity for young people because of the possibility they present of permanent employment. With entry-level jobs hard to find, most young people have to resort to service industry jobs that donít require a college degree such as restaurant positions, nannies and baristas.

Unpaid internships are easier to find than an entry-level job in today's job market, and they offer young people a chance to start a career of their choosing, rather than accepting any job that will pay the bills. Unpaid internships are becoming a common business practice. Employers do have legal obligations to employees that most unpaid interns are unaware of, as well as the employers themselves. This lack of understanding and commonplace of unpaid internships is discouraging and has struck a personal chord with me.

Have you ever accepted an unpaid internship?
  • 1. Yes
  • 2. No

I have had consistent and different internships throughout college while pursuing my design degree, and I have never worked for free. I have done a few internships where I have got credit for school in exchange and didnít get paid, and I think under the right circumstances this is OK if you can afford it for a semester. But trust me, the internships and jobs I did score did not come without their work. For every internship and job I landed, I must have averaged 50 or more emails, calls, applications and outreach tactics. But it can be done!

Stop and think before you accept an unpaid internship, and hopefully by the time you reach the end of this article I can convince you to assess yourself enough to not accept unpaid internships, as well as discourage others from doing so.

Some unpaid internships at a for-profit company can be illegal. Ask yourself a few questions. Could the work you're doing displace current staff members? Is your work benefiting the company, rather than gaining experience for yourself? Is your internship not related to anything you would receive in academia? If you said yes to any of the questions, you may be being exploited. Know your rights.

Most people feel as though an unpaid internship might be their only option because it's the only position available or they choose to accept so they can enter the work force in their preferred field. Others take unpaid internships because they feel under qualified for any other position. At most points during my job search, I have felt either overqualified or underqualified. It's a weird and unfair place to be. You would be surprised with what you know, so never sell yourself short. Be aggressive and don't be afraid to really showcase your skills, academia experience and any relevant work experience.

If you have to take an unpaid internship, perhaps ask your employer to help cut down on your expenses to work there — such as paying for your commute, if you have one, or bus fare. Donít be afraid to get creative and "branch" out of your field to gain relevant work experience somewhere else. Getting an entry-level job and paid internship in a semi-related field to gain experience with the aim to move into your chosen profession is also great. You can gain valuable and unique perspectives and experiences you might have otherwise never have gotten. It also gives you a chance to polish and refine other skillsets.

Some tips on how to land a great paid internship or job is to sell yourself and be creative. Create a personal website that showcases your work experience, recommendations from previous employers, writing samples and school work you're proud of. Get as many recommendations as you can, and only show some of your best work. It is better to show just a few great things than a lot of mediocre things and a few good. I personally have a graphic resume and choose not to have a basic and simple resume. You have to be careful with graphic resumes and make sure they are well-designed and tasteful, but I think it really sets you apart and shows that extra effort. Also, consider having a personal statement that you send to employers to market yourself and allow them to "get to know you." Once I found an article that talked about how the current workforce lacks a specific skill that I had. I cut and pasted it into the body of the email and sent it over — I got a great interview from that.

Unpaid internships are a social injustice that are often prevalent at for-profit businesses. I really hope for Gen Y's sake that the trend of unpaid internships will not become the contemporary equivalent of the entry-level job. Isnít providing a paid internship like investing in Americaís next generation? I, for one, believe in an honest dayís work for an honest dayís pay.

Alexandra Brower has a degree in environmental design with an urban planning emphasis from CU Boulder in Colorado, is trained in urban planning, architecture, landscape architecture and design. Originally from Oahu, Hawaii, she enjoys an array of activities such as rock climbing, traveling, yoga, hiking, writing, hockey, design and gardening. She approaches design with holistic and sustainable philosophies. She can speak Japanese and German, loves spicy food and wants to go to space before she dies. Follow her on Twitter @hawaiiaspenalex.