Interns will help keep corporate America running this summer.
And for some smaller employers and startups in this slow-mo economic recovery, those interns provide much needed muscle for little or no pay.
Some argue this creates a vicious cycle where job creation is stunted and wages are suppressed, but many students in the Triangle see the experience as a necessary step on the road to a career.
Gone are the days of returning home to wait tables or scoop ice cream in a beach town. By their senior years, many have numerous internships to their credit.
Take Maria Martinat. She graduated from N.C. State University in 2010 with a degree in communications.
“I didn’t even start thinking about internships until my junior year,” said Martinat, who’s from Rutherford College, a community in the foothills near Valdese. “Then I met a professor who told me internships are really important.”
In the course of one academic year, Martinat did three internships: at NBC 17, in former Gov. Bev Purdue’s communication office, and at Howard, Merrell & Partners, an advertising agency in Raleigh.
She describes those days as “very busy.”
Martinat worked at Howard, Merrell and at the governor’s office – both internships unpaid – at the same time. Three days at the ad agency, two days at the governor’s office. But even though she said the summer was financially challenging, her willingness to take on any task from monitoring news articles about clients to writing press releases and bios made Howard, Merrell remember Martinat when they were looking to hire in the spring of her senior year.
“It was two weeks before graduation, and my former mentor called me and offered the job,” Martinat said. “I was very lucky.”
Stephanie Styons, a senior vice president at Howard, Merrell, said Martinat’s story is how the internship-business relationship is supposed to work.
“It’s so logical to have strong internship programs here in the Triangle because of the universities,” Styons said. “And they’re young, so they belong to a different demographic, and have a different way of thinking. It offers such a different perspective.”
Styons said internships and externships – college courses designed to give students practical work experience – helped launch her own career.
She said she looks for interns who want to learn how an agency works.
“Every semester we take six or eight interns, and more in the summer,” Styons said. The application pool at Howard, Merrell can be deep, she said, and she expects undergraduates to bring a certain level of experience to the company.
“We don’t always want someone who’s really green,” Styons said. “Especially if they have to write copy. We want them to have done another internship.”
The rise of the intern
Therein, said Tim Stiles, associate director of UNC-Chapel Hill’s career services office, lies the truth about internships: Internships beget more internships and, sometimes, jobs. Stiles has worked at UNC-CH for more than a decade and has witnessed the rise of the internship as a way of life for college students.
“Internships, or some type of experiential learning, is absolutely a necessity for undergrads these days,” Stiles said. Sixty-nine percent of 2012 graduates did internships while they were students, he said. Nineteen percent of those students completed two internships, and 15 percent did three or more.
“We work very closely with students to make sure the internship is giving them something, whether it’s academic credit or payment,” Stiles said. “It has to be of benefit to the student.”
Each academic major decides whether an unpaid internship will count as course credit, Stiles said, but he cautions students against taking any internships that aren’t willing to put in the time needed to develop the students’ skills.
In fact, unpaid internships are illegal unless they offer an educational opportunity for interns.
Even then, the practice has critics. They argue that not paying interns can keep wages low for everyone, and that it makes it harder for lower-income students, who can’t afford to work for free, to enter the careers they want.
Naresh Vissa, a recent graduate of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business who now runs Krish Media and Marketing, is a vocal opponent of unpaid internships.
“If you can’t afford to pay someone even the minimal wage, you need to be rethinking your business model,” Vissa said.
He heard of too many unpaid interns saddled with menial tasks, he said.
“That’s not worth it if all you’re getting is a letter of recommendation,” Vissa said. “Unless it’s for your absolute dream job or industry, there’s a much better way to get experience.”
Of course, for some students, even the most educational of internships can’t be performed for free.
“I couldn’t afford to do an unpaid internship,” said Jenny Sun, a sophomore at UNC-CH.
The biostatistics major from Chapel Hill will earn $2,100 a month this summer as an intern at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Sun will work in the epidemiology department, looking at breast cancer studies.
“In my eyes, I want to be the most competitive I can be in the future,” Sun said. “Internships could be important, having a company on your résumé to show you have experience.”
Last summer, Sun spent two months in China, but a semester at King’s College in London this fall means that this summer she needed to get career experience that paid.
“This was my top internship pick,” Sun said. “If I enjoy the internship, I’m thinking of switching my major to public health.”
Styons said discovering what you like and don’t like on a job is the best thing an internship has to offer.
“If someone works here for a summer and says, ‘I don’t like agency work; it stinks,’ that’s great,” Styons said. “They’ve saved themselves a lot of time.”
Nick Sanford, a Lake Norman native, just finished his junior year at UNC-CH. Sanford, a business journalism major, thinks he may also be interested in entrepreneurship.
“I was using a website called Dramafever, which is like Hulu for international dramas and soap operas,” Sanford said.
After emailing the company, a startup, through the address listed on the website, Sanford got an internship. He’ll earn $13 an hour, but will be living in New York City for the job this summer.
“I should be able to just about break even. If I do go over, my parents don’t mind supporting me a little,” Sanford said. “Internships are investments in our résumé. My parents and I both know it’s important for me to get that experience and don’t mind putting a little money out.”
This spring, Martinat got to hire her own intern, an undergraduate from NCSU. She’ll tell her intern what she tells anyone facing a summer of résumé building:
“Yes it’s unpaid, yes you have to bring your own laptop, but hang in there, because it’s worth it.”