Experience outweighs financial gain

For many majors at UW-Eau Claire, an internship is required in order to graduate. But not all internships are paid, which makes deciding to take an internship difficult for some students.

Gina Loeffel, a recent graduate from Eau Claire and current employee at Greenheck Fan Corporation in Wausau, took on two unpaid internships as well as a part-time job last summer.

“It was kind of overwhelming having to still make money on top of two internships,” Loeffel said.

Both of her employers, Mainstreet Wausau and Coolwater Creative, were small companies which allowed for much more flexibility and both were part time, she said.

Loeffel said though the internships were unpaid, she still received one credit toward her college career for each job. The employers took this into account when deciding what jobs for her to do, she said.

There are six criteria an employer must apply when deciding whether an internship is paid or unpaid, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division. Determining factors include how much educational training is given, beneficial experience and making sure the intern is not doing the job of regular, paid employees.

An intern must also understand they are not entitled to a job at that company or payment for time during the internship, according to the department website. If all of these rules are understood by both parties, the unpaid internship is completely legal.

Harry Hertel, the legal services attorney for the UW-Eau Claire campus, said one issue unpaid interns face is concerns of confidentiality, especially in law firms.

“In the legal field, the issues that come up generally involve confidentiality because all of the communications with clients are privileged,” Hertel said.

This means interns have to understand they can’t go back to the dorm rooms and tell their friends information about the clients they worked with that day.

In the business world there are also trade secrets, customer lists and other information employers want to be kept confidential, Hertel said.

“It could put an intern at risk, of not just losing a job, but possibly some type of civil or criminal action if they were to violate it,” he said.

Students have to remember, whether paid or not, they are still following company rules, Hertel said.

“Interns have an agreement in which they give up the right to seek pay in exchange for the hours they work because they would be receiving experience and references they wouldn’t otherwise have,” Hertel said.

Most employers and students understand this agreement, Hertel said, and in the years he has been serving Eau Claire he said he hasn’t come across many instances where this agreement has
been violated.

College students are craving necessary experience to move forward after graduation, and internships are one way of doing that, Hertel said.

“The experience and the references you can get can be very worthwhile, and it doesn’t hurt to take an internship as long as you know it’s not going to be too much to handle,” Hertel said.

Overall, because experience is so important in getting a job after graduating, Hertel said it doesn’t hurt to have unpaid internships on a resume.

Loeffel said, in the long run, she gained valuable experience in different areas and was still able to pay her bills. Though she didn’t have much free time, she said it was worth it.