With the rising importance of internships on a college graduate’s resume, what are working students to do?
by Micaela Wendell
Nov. 6, 2016
Leigh Wheat has struggled with the pressure of juggling a nearly 40-hour work week and a full college course load at the University of South Carolina.
“The stress from a full-time job and school has caused my hair to fall out drastically on more than one occasion,” the 22-year-old senior said.
Joby Pace, a hotel, restaurant and tourism management student, once worked a 14-hour restaurant shift from 2 p.m. to almost 4 a.m. with a test coming up in his 8 a.m. Spanish class.
“There was no balance,” Pace, 25, said. His 70- to 80-hour workweek left him little time to study and his grades suffered.
Visual communications student Kamila Melko started her 2016 summer break with a phone call from her parents. They told the 21-year-old that she had to financially support herself from then on.
“There was a couple days where I just shut down, and I didn’t know what to do,” Melko said.
With the ever-rising costs of college, many students find they must pay for tuition, books, gas and recreation. For some, like Wheat, Pace and Melko, holding a job is an essential part of college life — providing a steady flow of cash to keep food on the table and pay the monthly bills.
Although they need to support themselves, they also need a competitive resume to land a job in their field after graduation. Internships are the avenue of choice for students to gain career experience and catch an employer’s eye, but with so many unpaid internships being offered today, working students are caught in a bind.
The Fair Labor Standards Act in 2010 set a six-pronged list of guidelines for businesses to legally conduct unpaid internships. But what is largely ignored in those guidelines is this: Students who support themselves through college might not be able to “afford” to take an unpaid internship due to time constraints or the inability to sacrifice work hours at a paying job.
Melko, who is originally from Los Angeles, has worked several different jobs and taken a paid internship since her freshman year to cover half her college expenses. When she needed to fully support herself, she became much more organized. She currently juggles her serving job at SakiTumi on Gervais Street and her duties as editor-in-chief of The Daily Gamecock.
Melko’s job and student newspaper duties require about 30 hours per week of commitments, not including time toward assignments for her senior semester courses.
“I do what I need to do in order to survive,” she said, “and not only just survive, but I want to be able to thrive, and so I push myself … very close to the edge.”
Pace also had to push himself to balance work and school, especially when he took the manager position at a restaurant.
“I had real-life deadlines that effected more people than just myself,” the Nichols native said. “Truck orders and scheduling my staff, unfortunately, took a higher priority than my Spanish homework. Huge mistake, but I learned from it.”
Wheat, a fifth-year media arts student from Gaffney, said that she hasn’t been able to take any internships because she works 34-40 hours a week as a cake decorator at Publix grocery store in addition to her classwork.
Many universities, including USC, do not ask whether internships reported for class credit are paid, so it is difficult to tell how many internships available today are unpaid versus paid. Even if universities did record internships’ pay, not all students report their internship for credit.
Mark Anthony, the USC Career Center’s associate director of career development and experiential education, said that a student’s field of study might dictate whether an internship is paid.
Typically, he said, majors that involve “highly-skilled, technical work” such as engineering receive paid internships. Fields with many students seeking internships — such as journalism and advertising — usually do not pay.
Some businesses might not have it in their budget to pay interns. Daniel Ostergaard, business clinical professor at the USC Moore School of Business, said that having to pay interns might mean that a company would have to eliminate its internship program.
Supply and demand could influence whether internships are paid, he said. Fields with a high demand for internships and a surplus of students wanting that internship can attract top talent without offering pay. High-demand fields, including math and the sciences, with a low supply of interns use pay as an incentive to attract talent.
Just as internships are part of a market for students to gain experience, they are a market for businesses to identify potential hires.
So what does that mean for working students? Although some might think that prestigious internships carry more weight on a resume than jobs, Ostergaard disagreed.
“Why would you discount the waiter at IHOP for the person who went to New York to do an internship?” he said.
The key is how students define their experiences on their resumes. A simple change in perspective of experiences can turn a part- or full-time job into a resume booster. For a server thinking of placing “handled money and checks” on a resume, Ostergaard suggested rewording it to “entrusted with cash and all credit financial transactions.”
Anthony encourages students to gear their resume word choice to what their potential employer wants — a technique applicable to both working students and those with internships.
Anthony also said that if working students report on their resume that they supported themselves through college, the assumed skills from that experience could speak volumes to potential employers. That signals that a student has a strong work ethic, great time management skills and a true appreciation for the education he or she has received.
That isn’t to say that college jobs are necessarily better than internships. Ostergaard said that an employer requiring specific skills might favor internship experience, while an employer needing a compatible personality or demeanor might value a job.
Students must decide for themselves if the tradeoff of an unpaid internship is worth a possible leg up in the future job search or salary negotiation. Businesses must also self-evaluate, Ostergaard said, and they have to ask themselves, “Is the firm able to attract top talent without paying?”
Executives at local news station WLTX asked this question about a year ago and decided to start paying interns. Rich O’Dell, the president and general manager, said that corporate executives wanted to take away the pay obstacle for students who could not take an unpaid internship.
“By limiting it to credit-only, we were making the pool of prospective interns smaller. Because if you had some students who really needed to work during the summer, wanted the opportunity but really needed to get some kind of compensation for it, we were losing them,” O’Dell said. “We like to cast the widest net there possibly is.”
Both Anthony and Ostergaard agree that the value of internships and jobs comes from what students make of their experience.
“Own the job,” Ostergaard said. “Become an expert in it.” He said that interns should complete the work that they’re given, do it well and then ask superiors for more.
Anthony encouraged students to give themselves the opportunity to learn and grow no matter what situation they might find themselves in.
Both students taking internships and students working to pay the bills have opportunities to capitalize on their unique, individual college experience — it’s just a matter of finding those opportunities.
O’Dell emphasized the importance of students doing what they can to build their resume.
“Most of you (students) think your career begins the day you graduate from college,” he said. “My philosophy is your career began the day you walked into college. What are you doing in school that’s getting you to where you want to go?”