Unpaid internships: are they beneficial or exploitative for college students?

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Houston Jones, senior cinema and television arts major at CSUN, was an unpaid intern at the Santa Barbara-based Montecito Picture Company. However, Jones did not perform any tasks related to film. He brewed coffee, ordered food for his supervisors and ran errands for which he was not compensated for gas mileage.

“I felt like Montecito Picture Company didn’t offer anything at all, except for a recommendation letter that seemed to be a [template],” Jones said. “Even though it was in a film production company, it didn’t feel film-related.”

Internships have become staples for students looking to gain work experience while they earn their degrees, but similar situations like that of Jones have sparked a backlash in recent years against companies who seem to take advantage of temporary workers.

In a recent New York federal court ruling, Fox Searchlight Pictures was found to be in violation of labor laws because they wrongly labeled four unpaid trainees as interns rather than employees while working on films “Black Swan” and “500 Days of Summer.”

In December 2012, Charlie Rose, Inc. settled a lawsuit and agreed to pay 189 interns up to $250,000 for work done on the “Charlie Rose” television show.

Unpaid vs. paid internships

Through the Career Center, CSUN offers students a website called SUNLink, where employers post jobs, fellowships and internship opportunities.

Jordan Helo, peer educator intern specialist at CSUN’s Career Center, has interned at five different locations. She is a graduate student in recreation tourism management and hopes to become a wedding planner. Helo said internships are beneficial to students.

“If you get into an internship and you think this is what you want to do for the rest of your life and you go and you dislike it, then you know this isn’t for (you),” Helo said.

Helo said approximately 75 percent of the internships offered through the website are unpaid, but she said students should recognize other potential benefits that internships offer, such as college units or pay for meals and gas.

“(Internships are) also helpful in networking,” Helo said. “You meet people at your internships. Even if you don’t get a job with them right away, you’ll always have that contact, whether it be for a letter of recommendation or later down the future (to) see if they know any positions that open. I think that’s great.”

Ross Perlin, author of “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy,” argues unpaid internships are “bad news across the board.”

“An unpaid internship may be legitimate if it’s a short-term training opportunity, or if it’s just another word for a bona fide volunteer situation,” Perlin said. “Paid internships have some real benefits in terms of landing people jobs, showing them how certain industries and employers operate, teaching things that can’t be learned in a classroom.”

Perlin’s book uses four years of research to tackle subjects such as internships and their effect on the economy, how internships impact the lives of young people, social inequalities potentially maintained by internships and the effects internships have on certain industries.

The growth of unpaid internships:

In the 1930s, the term “intern” was reserved for those who earned a medical degree but had not yet been licensed to practice in their field. Some time later, it became a term that substituted for a political apprentice, according to a Time magazine article.

By 1983, the number of colleges offering co-op programs — situations in which students would receive job training at a company while they were in school — rose to 1,000. These programs were initially more common than the internships people participate in today, which started in the 1960s.

Today, pre-job training continues to grow. According to a 2013 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the number of internships is projected to increase about 2 percent this year. Co-op programs are also expected to rise about 6 percent.

The survey also found 67 percent of paid internships lead to a full-time job compared to 33 percent of unpaid interns successfully getting work. In addition, 35 percent of students who did not have an internship got at least one job offer.

The study also revealed a gap in starting salary among those with internships versus unpaid internships. The average starting salary of new graduates with paid internships was just under $52,000 compared to almost $36,000 for graduates with unpaid internships. Those who graduated with no internship experience earn about $37,000, which is more than students with unpaid internship experience.

Income and even gender also seems to play a part in whether a person takes an unpaid or paid internship. According to a 2010 report released by Intern Bridge, Inc., women and students with a higher economic background were more likely to participate in unpaid internships at for-profit companies.

The faces behind unpaid internships

Helo said industries that most commonly offer paid internships via SUNLink are ones involving an advanced skill such as engineering and computer science. In regards to unpaid internships, she said most come from small businesses or the entertainment industry.

According to the Intern Bridge report, the academic majors offering more unpaid versus paid internships were education (34 percent paid), social sciences (35 percent paid), health sciences (39 percent paid), communications (41 percent paid), and arts and humanities (43 percent paid).

The study also found 57 percent of the internships offered by smaller companies and firms were unpaid, while larger companies had 17 percent of their internships unpaid.

There are six criteria which determine whether someone working for a company can be unpaid under the Fair Labor Standards Act, according to the United States Department of Labor. Some of the criteria include that the intern work under close supervision, other employees must not be displaced by the intern, the employer must not benefit most from having an intern, and others.

Perlin feels the guidelines are a good start, but are being taken advantage of by employers.

“I wouldn’t say they’re perfect, but I think the (Department of Labor) standards provide reasonable guidance, demonstrating that there (should) only be a very narrow exception from pay for short-term training programs,” Perlin said. “The biggest problem right now is that these guidelines are not being enforced (and) that so many employers are ignoring them.”

Helo feels the act is not currently doing any good for students who wish to pursue an internship.

“Right now, it’s kind of constructed where it’s very general and it’s kind of hard for us to make it relevant for every student because there’s a lot of holes in it,” Helo said. “That’s basically why, right now, all of these things are changing because a lot of students are suing companies because they were taken advantage of, they didn’t get their academic credit, (a company) promised something that they didn’t do or (companies) were using them for 40 or more hours per week, unpaid.”

However, not all unpaid internships turn out to be horror stories. Jones worked for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, a nonprofit organization, and said he was involved with much more film-relevant tasks and felt his time there was positive. This January will be his fourth year as an unpaid intern for the festival.

“There was a lot more that was offered for the people working as interns,” Jones said of the company.” The fact that I had fun and the perks that came from doing it pushed me to working hard and doing a good job and in the end, that got me invited again.”

According to the United States Department of Labor, there are six criteria which determine whether someone working for a company can be unpaid.  They are:

1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;

2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;

3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;

4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;

5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and

6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.


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