Electropac, a firm that makes printed circuit boards in New Hampshire, once had 500 paid employees. Today, it has 34. But thanks to a state program for the unemployed, it also now offers unpaid internships.
Across the country, unpaid internships are on the rise for older adults looking to change careers or rebound from layoffs. In New Hampshire, a state-run program encourages the unemployed to take six-week internships at companies with the hope of getting a permanent job.
In New Hampshire, close to 600 people have already interned at 275 companies in what's called the Return to Work program. The state says more than 60 percent of the interns received jobs offers at the companies where they trained.
Hiring As A Gamble
Electropac, housed in a large, brick mill building in Manchester, stands out among the graffiti-splattered warehouses on Willow Street. Owner Raymond Boissoneau says he wants to hire more people. The problem is he can't afford the gamble.
"You're taking on someone that you'd be training," he says. "And while they're going through a training program, they're not able to produce the necessary products that you need in a profitable manner."
Carol Nyberg from Manchester was laid off six months ago. In a previous layoff, she lost her home. This last setback hit her again.
"The first thing is you worry about all the standard bills you have to pay," she says. "We have gotten behind on a lot of them, because on unemployment, you have to make choices: food and rent vs. lights and heat."
For the past several weeks, Nyberg has come to Electropac to learn how to inspect circuit board panels.
Nyberg just turned 60. Before this opportunity, she says, her prospects were dim. While she's not receiving a paycheck, she's hopeful this stint will lead to one.
"It's a two-sided thing — if I'm going to like the job, if he's going to like me," she says. "So far, I've been doing really well."
Nyberg says there is a part of her that questions why she has to work for free.
"I'm still getting my unemployment check, which isn't much. It's better than nothing," she says. "And I have a chance of working. And that's all most people want. They just want a job."
'Better Than Nothing'?
Robert McIntosh is a career counselor across the state border in Lowell, Mass. He says this unpaid internship might help Nyberg close any gaps in her resume.
"It's better than nothing, really. And it's better than sitting at home," he says.
But McIntosh also says: Buyer, beware.
"What they really need to look out for," he says, "is to make sure that the person who is supposed to be trained at the company is actually getting trained — and not being used just for free labor."