Years ago when my colleagues and I ran a small company, we hired several interns, usually engineering students from Virginia Tech. One fellow told me he learned more practical skills from his “internship” with us than from all his courses. The pay was low, but the return for the students proved profitable later on.
Not all interns get paid, though. While I worked as an editor at EDN magazine, we had several interns work with us during vacations. They learned how a magazine went together, from article ideas to stories and from press releases to product write-ups. They enjoyed working with the magazine people and generally learned useful skills. Interns got paid a stipend when they worked during their summer vacation. College policies prevented paying student interns who worked with us as part of a class assignment or to fulfill a course requirement.
Some people might argue that a company that uses unpaid interns can substitute several such interns for a paid staff person and save money. I doubt it. Most interns start with little or no knowledge of what their “jobs” will involve and they have no experience to draw on, whereas a paid employee has experience (I would hope) commensurate with his or her wages or salary. And keep in mind that companies take a big risk with interns, paid or not. Young people without much, or any, experience can require a lot of mentoring and oversight. Thus, a small department can see its productivity drop somewhat.
Unpaid intern positions have a place. And after all, no one forces these young people to work for free. If they want to get paid they can choose to work elsewhere, but often they trade off experience in their chosen profession versus a paid position that doesn’t offer the same experience. The Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece, “Confessions of Two Unpaid Interns,” in the April 8, 2010 issue. Most of the letters to the editor about this piece stressed the positive benefits of an unpaid internship.
When I talk with engineers in industry, most note that the just-out-of-school engineers they interview have little practical experience with real-world design problems. In one case, two engineers designed a structure that looked more like a piece of art than a piece of practical functioning equipment. I’ve also heard stories about fresh-from-school electrical engineers who can write reams of C/C++ code but who have no idea how to get a microcontroller to turn a motor on or off. An internship can help students better understand real-world challenges and how to approach complex problems. Hands-on programs in colleges can only go so far.
Now, the US Department of Labor has jumped into the “unpaid intern” debate and according to the WSJ column, “‘There aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship [at a for-profit company] and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,’ a Labor Department official recently told the New York Times.”
I welcome your thoughts about the value of internships and whether companies must pay interns or if interns can work without pay. –Jon Titus