I’ve been reading with some interest recent articles about internships. Do they or do they not lead to jobs? Do unpaid internships violate minimum wage and labor laws? One important distinction that doesn’t seem to be factored into much of the recent debate is that not all internships are the same. They aren’t structured the same, the work an intern is expected to do isn’t the same, and the stature of the intern within the staff hierarchy isn’t the same from organization to organization or business to business.
I remember attending an internship fair at a local college; it was my first time on the other side of the table talking to students about why interning at our organization is a good idea. I talked about gaining valuable experience which would help them, as undergraduates, understand better what public history is all about. The internship experience would also let them weigh if graduate school, the increasingly common path to success in public history, is worth their time and money given the career potentials. Other representatives at the fair were by and large from private sector, for-profit businesses. Perhaps it was the fancy illustrated vinyl displays and custom table covers or maybe they had better candy than we, but students tended to gravitate toward them.
I discovered most of the private sector organizations offered some sort of compensation for their interns. A conclusion I drew from the students who did stop by our table asking if our internships were paid. Looking back, I don’t think it was worth our while to attend that internship fair as our offerings were fundamentally different from the others. As a non-profit, educational organization, we approach internships as another arm of our educational outreach. Our interns do not simply do mind-numbing data entry, make coffee or sweep the floor. We try to find where their interests lie (if they even know at that point) and work with them to develop an experience that will expand their understanding while giving us some help with needed tasks.
Most organizations like ours do not have the funds to pay interns but what we can do is provide a valuable experience. Rarely have we been able to offer an intern a job following their time with us, but what we do on a regular basis is provide interns with an educational experience on a level that meets academic standards required for course credit.