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Internships and ROI

Posted by Chad O'Connor  February 2, 2014 06:00 AM

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There has been much talk about unpaid internships, with many urging businesses to compensate students for their efforts. I am of a different mind. I think there is a time and a place for the unpaid, academic internship. While valid concerns have been raised, I believe, in the long run, even unpaid internships benefit students by providing the kind of integrated, real world experience that leads to wise career choices and ultimately paid positions.

As a professor and the director of Lasell College’s Internship program, I’ve seen, first-hand, a return on investment that is real and meaningful. In exchange for their time, our students come away from internships with college credits, new skills, contacts, letters of recommendation and, equally important, confidence in themselves and their abilities, having made a contribution to an organization. We believe so strongly in the power of these field experiences that here, the completion of at least one internship is an academic requirement. Yet most of our students seek additional internships in order to further polish skills and build their resumes.

There’s a downside to requiring paid internships. Those organizations with limited resources—including start-ups and nonprofits— would likely be forced to abandon their internship programs. The fact is, if internships are eliminated, students will be the big losers.

I certainly don’t favor employers using unpaid interns to handle work that would otherwise fall to a staff member or limiting assignments to stuffing envelopes and fetching coffee. Nor do I support internships that require significant commitments of over 24 hours per week during the work week. These demanding assignments prevent those students who rely on part-time jobs to support themselves or help underwrite the cost of their education from gaining hands-on experience in their field of study.

Differentiating jobs from internships can be tricky. But the U.S. Department of Labor website is a great resource for both students and prospective employers trying to understand the rules of the game.

Despite the sometimes blurred lines, I urge the business and non-profit communities to continue to invest in students by providing valuable, educational internship opportunities. And I encourage students to invest in themselves by offering their time and talents as interns.

That way, everybody wins.

Sarah Burrows, M.S., is Assistant Professor of Communication and Director of Internship Program at Lasell College.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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