In a city like New York, where young adults fight for their dream jobs and hope to prove their competence early on, internships serve as a right of passage for many college students. But many people wonder, is the exposure and abundance of connections worth working for free? The answer to this question is based on six criteria established by the Department of Labor: it’s all fine if the internship completely benefits the intern, resembles training in an educational atmosphere, does not take advantage of the intern, does not always result in a job, and does not replace full-time employees. Overall, the intern and employer must be in agreement if the intern will not be paid.
Katie Hamrick, a freshman at Sarah Lawrence, was an unpaid intern for Katie Brierly, a fashion designer based in Newport, Rhode Island. Hamrick steamed clothes, ran errands, assisted on fashion shoots, and created inspiration boards for Brierly. Hamrick explains, “I got to watch her [Brierly] sketch during my first night on the job, and that was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Seeing her inspiration blossom was unreal.”
James Neiley, a senior at SLC, interned at a PR Agency and Glamour magazine. He explains that internships can be quite beneficial, as long as the intern takes his/her job seriously.
He says, “Handling samples can translate to learning to be detail oriented, answering phones gets rid of the nerves one might have in terms of talking to other professionals. A task is never just a task.”
Many interns do not just shadow current employees, but take on jobs that require incredible time commitments. Hamrick says, “Interns essentially take on the job of a personal assistant for free—booking plane flights, running errands, and working outside of the office—because there is an overwhelming amount of interest in certain fields, especially in fashion.”
As well as the time commitments, many unpaid interns actually lose money by purchasing metro cards and bus passes to get around the city. Neiley explains, “It isn’t often a sustainable offer if you’re working for free and traveling to and from the city all the time. It’s financially exclusive, and that is a humongous problem.”
Despite the time commitments and transportation issues, having an internship can provide a student with spectacular advantages—such as influential connections and job offers. Anne Marie Damiani, Associate Director of SLC’s Career Development program, explains that the connections interns make are priceless. “The way the company sees it, if you have Conde Nast on your resume and you’ve got that experience, that’s a huge stepping stone for your career. Employers will always raise their eyebrows when they see that big name.”
Katherine Bradshaw, Career and Internship Coordinator at SLC, agrees with Damiani in that interns must always take advantage of the people they meet on the job. She says, “Networking opportunities are the biggest benefits of internships. It’s all about breaking into the business until you find your ‘in’.”
As Neiley says, “I believe that unpaid internships are essential in every field. They provide an environment where, if taken advantage of, one can learn everything they need to know about the structure of the industry in which they’re working.”
We could assess the benefits and drawbacks of unpaid internships for hours, but if a student is offered the opportunity to train under an influential designer, company, or brand, it should be considered an honor, despite the disadvantages. Industries like fashion and film are constantly searching for qualified youths to fill spots for summer jobs and potentially work in the field full-time, so why shouldn’t a student start early on?