Recognize the unpleasant realities of unpaid internships
On a daily basis, I receive emails reminding me of the importance of applying to internships for the summer. Students are constantly told that, for the development of their professional careers, internships are a crucial first step. With summer just beginning, the time to be proactive is now. Even first-year students feel some pressure to do something “beneficial” with their summer as opposed to just having a vacation — but one has to wonder whether all internships actually do result in valuable experience or whether some are just a source of free labor.
According to a May 5, 2015 US News and World Report article, college graduates with paid internship experience are more likely to have received a job offer than those with experience with an unpaid internship. The data came from an annual study conducted by the National Association of College Employers. Each year they contact their partner colleges with surveys regarding employment trends among students.
A total of 10,210 seniors were interviewed, and their responses were used for the purpose of the study. About 65 percent of students with experience at a paid for-profit internship reported having job offers while only 40 percent of students with experience at an unpaid for-profit internship reported having job offers. By comparison, 39 percent of students without internship experience in a professional field reported receiving job offers.
According to the same US News and World Report article, paid interns spend the majority of their time managing tasks or projects, while unpaid interns spend more time on clerical work.
In other words, unpaid interns are not always utilized to their fullest potential; this may be due to their lack of compensation, which can make employers feel that they only deserve more menial work.
However, employers must keep in mind the interns’ missions when assigning them tasks. All interns have a reason for taking their positions, and the general goals are to learn about the industry and gain some experience. If the intern is stuck doing tasks like photocopying, their mission is not realized. Employers should try to mold interns into the type of individuals that they would like to have working for them.
Continuing with the trend of unpaid interns benefiting less from their time, individuals with paid experience have been shown to take higher initial salaries than those with unpaid experience. According to a Jan. 16, 2014 Forbes article, individuals with paid experience make an average of $51,930, while those with either no internship experience or unpaid experience make around $35,000 to $37,000. This may be due to their familiarity with the corporate world and their understanding of what their services are worth, or it may be due to the work history that they have documented.
Regardless, the disparity in pay is unfair because students with both paid and unpaid experience have shown an effort to take a step forward with their career.
Paid interns generally earn more valuable experience from the duration of their service, while unpaid interns are subject to tasks that might just be burdensome for the employer. According to a July 3, 2015 New York Times article that addressed the legal suit between two interns for the 2010 film “Black Swan” and Fox, unpaid internships need to offer training analogous to what would be offered at a vocational school and must also benefit the student more than the company, as regulated by the Fair Labor Standards Act. If these terms are not met, the student is technically considered an employee and should receive compensation for their work.
This is a reasonable clause, because if one is volunteering their time, it should at least be for a cause that is beneficial to the individual. However, in the case of the interns for the film, their duties consisted of copying documents, ordering food and assembling furniture. In no way were these students learning about the film industry or benefiting from their experiences with Fox. Granted, they were exposed to the film industry and had the opportunity to network, but the interns’ tasks were not directly beneficial to them.
This abuse of labor has also been documented by New York University student Christina Isnardi, who interned at a production company and received no compensation for the work she did — work that was similar to that of actual employees.
In addition, there was a lack of training for the position; she was just expected to understand certain software techniques.
In a Feb. 17, 2014 Newsweek article, Isnardi called her university a “pipeline for bringing illegal unpaid internships to students.” She realized that her internship was in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act and started a petition for the university to remove illegal internships from the job portal. As a result, the university has worked to improve screening methods for their job postings.
Since unpaid internships have a trend of failing to give students an advantage in the hiring process, employers should re-evaluate the tasks they deem appropriate for their interns. For example, an intern could sit in on a meeting just to get a sense of the environment and, at their next job, hopefully have a better sense of what to do and how to behave. With this, the student is more involved, and the employer has the opportunity to see what they actually have to offer beyond photocopying. Just as always, internships still have the opportunity to provide some sort of networking opportunities to prospective hires, but unpaid interns will not always see the desired outcome.
Ultimately, one’s professional fate post-graduation is dictated by their choices and how wisely they utilized their time as an undergraduate — including their choices with internships.