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The Internship: Free labor or the road to a career?

Career Counseling Intern Tina Jung meets with student Hazel Wheeler to discuss internships. (Tymeesa Rutledge)

Last summer, Amelia Lopez, Public Policy major and A.S.M.C. President, spent her weeks planning events in assembly woman Fiona Ma’s District 12. Lopez did all of these tasks in a cramped office space that, at times surrounded by up to 75 people – 30 of whom were interns. According to Lopez, internships make or break students’ resumes.

As summer approaches, many Mills students are planning to hold internships in hopes of making their resumes more competitive. According to the New York Times article “ The Unpaid Intern, Legal or Not,” a survey carried out by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) revealed that 50 percent of graduating students participate in internships

But, what exactly is an internship, and why should students get one?

“An internship is a one-time or service experience related to a career goal or major in a professional setting where you are supervised by people within an organization,” said Pooja Sharma, Mills’ Internship Coordinator.  “It can be paid or unpaid. You may or may not receive academic credit.”

Dean of Economics Nancy Thornborrow believes experience can be especially beneficial for those who haven’t worked professionally in the field before.

“Internships are good for all students, particularly those who don’t have job experience,” Thornborrow said. “Get yourself in position or you’ll just be another worker.”

Sharma said the reasoning behind hiring interns is that interns already trained and, therefore, cost effective. In addition, Sharma said an employer already knows an intern’s abilities in a professional setting.

According to NACE’s 2010 student survey, 42.3 percent of seniors who had intern experience had received at least one job offer after graduation. Only 30.7 percent of seniors without internship experience received a job offer. That’s almost a 12 percent difference.

People Magazine West Coast Online Editor Michael Fleeman stated at the Associate Collegiate Press Conference last month that internships are the only way a person can become a “known commodity.” Through internships, he explained, students can build relationships within the industry, gain connections and earn trust. Fleeman admitted that he prefers to hire students who’ve been interns.

Nevertheless, Thornborrow and others have concerns about companies that use interns as “free labor.” According to The New York Times article mentioned earlier, the government is looking out for companies who do not reward their interns.

“The Labor Department says it is cracking down on firms that fail to pay interns properly and expanding efforts to educate companies, colleges and students on the law regarding internships,” the article said.

Information on internships in the Career Center. (Tymeesa Rutledge)

There are many ways to watch out for illegitimate internships, the first and most obvious of which is getting a paid one.
Rachel Gregg, Mills senior majoring in International Relations, said her paid internship with Alternative Newsweekly, an organization that seeks to cover news ignored by mainstream media, was like a gift that kept on giving.

“I have called many for professional advice, letters of recommendations and friendships,” Gregg said.

But if an unpaid internship is your best option, there are warning signs you can keep an eye out for to ensure that the internship is legal. According to Sharma, the best way to tell if a company is trying to use you is if the company is having you do administrative work, like typing, copying and running errands.

Last of all, the Career Center offers students with internships that have already undergone a background check. One such internship is the Investing in Oakland: Mills College Summer Internship, which allows students to work for the city of Oakland as they work on projects to better the community. For more information on internships, visit the Career Center.