Do Unpaid Internships Harm the Career Prospects of International Students?

Rachit Agrawal
Modified on 2018-02-22 in Study Abroad
Read time: 6 mins

Source: MoralCourageChannel

In the fiercely competitive sector of work, interns are termed as ‘modern slaves’. Unpaid interns are haplessly pulled up to offer their services for no wages at all. These interns are expected to help companies happily save money, which they should ideally spend on recruiting full-time employees. However, if you  are a foreign student, on a study visa and interning for free, you could risk losing your residence visa in the country and be deported. Yes, it is definitely shocking to learn something like this when you’re working twice as hard as the full-time employee, whose shoes you’re trying to fill in through immense work. But, How does an Unpaid Internships Can Harm Career Prospects of International Students?

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Unfortunately,there’s no way around it; this one’s legally tricky. Irrespective of legalities, the truth is that if you are an unpaid intern, you should be ideally in a paid internship under the law. Therefore by doing an unpaid internship, you are in the risk of violating your immigration laws and status because paid internships are legally similar to actual ‘employment’, and to be employed, the international student should be ‘employment authorized’. Furthermore, it should coincide to the rule that an F-1 visa permits Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or that a J-1 visa permits Academic Training.

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Recently, the US Department of Labor took internship courses under fierce scrutiny. This crucial step was taken to determine if the unpaid internships coincide with the prescribed rules of ‘volunteer work’, willing to see where the international students actually did work as volunteers or if the firms were just smartly playing it to cheap workers. In addition, the government has made stringent laws and criteria for
the situations under which an employer can avail the services of interns or trainees, without actually paying them. Furthermore, if a company is found on the wrong side of legalities, the intern is seen as a ‘victim’ if he/she is a US citizen. On the contrary, if you a foreign student, unfortunately then you could be deported back to homeland.

Why an internship is important?

An internship is ideally an arrangement where both parties benefit. It is a symbiotic relationship wherein the companies identify and nurture potential talent and gain from fresh ideas and perspectives of the interns. On the other hand, the interns/students attain precious and worthy work experience that aids them to hone their skills. In addition, internships also help the students to mint academic credits.

A short internship generally provides an introduction to the idea of the work to be expected in the area of expertise. This much-needed exposure is crucial in deciding the career path, if not much then at least  in the nascent stages of one’s career. If the intern’s job profile is good, then there is a ray of hope that the internship can at some point of time be transformed into a full-time employment. This might happen either at an early stage of the internship or at a later stage. However, if that is not the case, don’t worry because there is always networking opportunities and experience to take away from an internship.

Internships caters as excellent opportunities to make professional networks or contacts. This is because  the people you interact with at or during  work, or because of it, can eventually transform into valuable professional contacts later. This is exactly why most of the the college campuses and business schools help their students achieve short-term internships.

However, somewhere down the line, things became ugly when companies started spotting cheap labor in such  freshers or early interns. The companies started to see the internship setup as an opportunity to get work done cheap, eventually heading to the unpaid internship zone with zero work cost. This resulted with the ‘intern’ being synonymously used with ‘menial labor’. In the worst of such cases, there are students/interns who are told to serve coffee or even pick up personal items from the laundry.

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How an unpaid internship could harm your future career?

The immediate question is, Why would a student or a fresher graduates take up with such abuse? The reason for such abuse is the downturn in the economy. When this downturn hit industry, it hit hard so much so that the companies starved on cash needed to hire regular recruits.
As a result,the interns are now seen as free or cheap alternatives for full-time employees. Then there are some companies that can manage to hire regular employees to get the work done are just downright stingy. With unemployment rates soaring so high, the youth is forced to accept unpaid internships as they believe that being in link with the workforce is better than being idle at home. There is another, more elegant, downside to the increasing number of unpaid internships. One of the many reasons is blockage in employment opportunities for experienced workers who have held these positions.
In a job market which is not an ideal one, a recent survey says that for the beleaguered intern,80 per cent of students observed said they expected to work as an intern or on a zero-hours contract.

Companies are basically reciprocating to the rule of supply and demand. If students in desperate need of work are willing to work for free, then why would a company go ahead and pay them? Despite being  exploited knowingly, accepting an unpaid internship can be more demoralizing. It could even make you less employable and therefore harm your career goals.

According to a recent survey of the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 63.1 per cent of paid interns were offered a job after graduation, whereas only a meager of 37 per cent of unpaid interns attained one, as compared to 35 per cent who had no internship experience. Companies seem to believe that paid interns are an asset whereas they see unpaid interns as unworthy of hiring. In addition, this could consequently turn into a vicious cycle and actually damage the morale of students with almost no choice but to intern for free. It becomes a terribly undesirable circumstance that probably has more to do with the health of the economy, luck and the connections one has rather than lack of talent or skills.

According to the NACE survey, it is said that the paid interns earned higher salaries after they landed full-time positions in comparison to their unpaid counterparts. The numbers reveal that on an average, a paid interns earned $51,930 at their first jobs, whereas the unpaid interns got $35,721 which amount to less than the $37,087 salary for those who did no internship at all. Despite these findings, these results may be a little inaccurate as paid internships are usually seen in higher-paying industries such as engineering, science and finance, whereas the unpaid internships are more in trend in lower-paying fields such as fashion and communications.

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About the Author

Rachit AgrawalRachit believes in the power of education and has studied from the top institutes of IIIT Allahabad, IIM Calcutta, and Francois Rabelias in France. He has worked as Software Developer with Microsoft and Adobe. Post his MBA, he worked with the world's # 1 consulting firm, The Boston Consulting Group across multiple geographies US, South-East Asia and Europe.

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