It’s hard for undergraduates to get paid internships," says 21-year-old Pallavi Agarwal. As an undergraduate studying commerce at Delhi’s Shri Ram College of Commerce, she interned with a bank and a start-up; she didn’t get paid at either. The internships taught her a lot and were good talking points in job interviews. Today, having landed a job at global consulting firm AT Kearney, she is glad she focused on choosing the right places to intern rather than waiting for paid internships to come by.

Another undergraduate student of commerce at Shri Ram College of Commerce, Zaid Ashraf, 21, interned with a well-known infrastructure company. “I had nothing to do at the office and I felt the whole experience was really pointless," he says, adding that he will only accept an internship with a fixed stipend and specified deliverables. “If a company pays you, even if it’s very little, they won’t be happy with letting you sit around doing nothing," he believes.

Motivate with money

That internships offer college students an edge is widely acknowledged; the question now being asked is—should they be paid or not? One side argues that the real-world experiences these opportunities offer are invaluable in themselves. Some, however, believe it’s only ethical to offer a stipend, and maintain paid internships tend to be taken more seriously.

At Internshala, an online internship platform for students, listings are free, but all the internships advertised must be paid ones. “The reason is very simple; paid internships bring a lot more accountability on both sides," says chief executive officer Sarvesh Agrawal. The only exceptions are government or NGO internships. Since these are not-for-profit, an internship can be considered a volunteering opportunity.

Sarvesh says higher stipends attract a better quality of applicants. “Offering a high stipend allows companies to attract diverse candidates. Living expenses in cities like Mumbai and Delhi are at least Rs15,000 a month and paying less means that people who don't have homes in these cities and don’t have the resources to fund themselves cannot apply," he explains.

Stipends can range from Rs5,000-30,000 a month, says Sarvesh. And obviously, there is a big demand for paid internships. For instance, an internship at Uber, recently listed on Internshala and offering a stipend of Rs15,000 a month, received over 200 applications.

On a general note, undergraduates tend to be paid less than graduates or postgraduates who take up internships as stopgap arrangements. The sum depends on the company profile and functional area. For example, web design projects tend to come with higher stipends than sales jobs.

Last year, Viacom18 Media Pvt. Ltd recruited 150 interns. The firm pays its undergraduate interns a stipend of Rs5,000 a month; the stipend for postgraduates goes up to Rs30,000. However, Abhinav Chopra, chief human resources officer and executive vice-president, believes stipends aren’t the main draw for millennial hires. “I don’t think I can ever win my interns on money. Millennials are born in an era of abundance; they aspire to more exposure, learning and experience, rather than money," he says, adding, “As a media and entertainment company, we find interns bring some fabulous ideas and new perspectives to the table." He believes the opportunity to travel, work on live projects and participate in brainstorming sessions are what attract millennial interns.

Experience pays off

While internships in areas like web design and analytics are well paid , stipends in fields like fashion, film-making, writing, music or the arts are usually nominal. But interns get to interact with successful professionals, learn their trade and develop a network of contacts. And doing such internships can give a newcomer a way to enter fields that are hard to break into.

“Unless you have amazing contacts, you cannot just get into the fashion field," says Aditi Sapre, who is studying for a diploma in fashion at Pearl Academy, Mumbai. Sapre, who was lucky to get a stipend of Rs15,000 per month while interning with Bollywood stylist Nitasha Gaurav, says: “When I went for my internship interview, I had no expectations of a stipend. I said I am not doing this for the pay, I am doing this for experience. Today, whatever contacts I have are because of this internship."

Gaurav says offering a stipend was the ethical thing to do. “My interns may be learning on the job, but they are also doing work for me. It’s just common decency to pay them. Otherwise, how is it different from slavery?"

Internship payments can be a touchy subject, as Rashmi Bansal discovered. In August, the author and entrepreneur found herself in the midst of a controversy following a Facebook post for interns that noted: “You will get a small stipend. But apply only if you would have worked, even for free."

Bansal says she was surprised by the maelstrom of criticism. The basic stipend she planned to pay wouldn’t be enough to support someone in a city like Mumbai. She concedes that living as an intern would be a struggle but believes this is part and parcel of the early years. Besides, she says, she invests time and energy in training. “Most people who come straight from journalism school don’t have practical job skills. Working with me, you’ll gain access to my network of contacts and pick up real-life skills like identifying themes and subjects to write about, how to interview and write an interesting and factually correct story."

Shronit Ladhani, founder of online education company CareerNinja, says students should consider internships an investment. “It may have a cost implication in lakhs in terms of the job you finally get," he says, citing his own example. As a student member of AIESEC (International Association of Students in Economic and Commercial Sciences), a non-profit, youth-run organization that provides professional internships, he travelled to the Czech Republic and Brazil. While food and accommodation were taken care of, he didn’t get a stipend for either. The experience helped him land a well-paying part-time job with 63 Moons Technologies Ltd, an incubator that was looking for professionals with cross-cultural experience. “If you have the right internships on your resumé, you are just that much more likely to get the job you want," he says.

So paid or unpaid—which side is right on the money? An internship is an opportunity to test-drive your career, pad your resumé and gain references for future jobs. But not paying stipends can be demoralizing as companies take such internships casually. Besides, they can be damaging for social mobility, excluding candidates who aren’t from the city they’re working in. Most ambitious young people, however, don’t bargain for a stipend. As Pallavi says: “If you can manage your living expenses, your goal should be to build your profile. If you insist on a stipend, you will just limit your options."

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