“The Unpaid Internship Offers No Advantage to the Job-Seeking Student”

Summary and Excerpts from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Class of 2011 Student Survey Report:

o More than half of responding seniors had an internship or co-op experience.
o Nearly half of internships were unpaid.
o Students who did paid internships fared better in the job market than those who did unpaid internships or no internship at all.
o The unpaid internship offers no advantage to the job-seeking student.

Median salary offer, by type of internship

The 2010 survey found a strong relationship between the average salary offer and having an internship. Students with an internship experience averaged approximately 20 percent more in a starting salary offer than did students who had no internship experience. The same was true for the Class of 2011. In fact, the differential between interns and non-interns was remarkably consistent given the overall improvement in the market. The median starting salary offer for students with an internship was $44,876 compared with $37,479 for students without an internship–a difference of 19.7 percent. However, just as with offer rate, the advantage interns have in terms of commanding salary fades quickly if their internship experience was of the unpaid variety.

Why did unpaid internships do so much more poorly than paid internships? After all, the argument on behalf of interns doing better in the job market than non-interns is that interns develop work experience that is important to employers when hiring for a full-time job. According to this line of reasoning, by having an internship experience, the student can show the development of real-world skills through a direct real-world experience — an advantage with employers. The current data allow for some speculation on — but no definitive reason for — why unpaid internships do not provide an advantage to students in offers or salary.

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Paid internships are generally characterized by students having more professional level experience than unpaid internships. In reverse, students in unpaid internships appear to spend a disproportionate amount of time engaged in clerical/non-essential functions. It appears from the connection between work distribution and compensation that unpaid internships are generally regarded as providing little in the way of experience that make a graduate especially valuable as a potential full-time employee, while pay is understood as an indicator for developing professional level experience.