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Future of unpaid internships no longer certain

29 January 2014 By Cody Boteler, Assistant News Editor & Sam Shelton, Staff Writer 3 Comments
Danielle Frater/ The Towerlight

Danielle Frater/ The Towerlight

Ryan Horan, a Towson student, is enrolled in classes just like every other student on campus. However, his learning experience has been expanded outside of the classroom because of his internship with Stanley Black & Decker.

“I am currently learning a new programming language that is not being taught in classes here at Towson,” Horan said.

College students in America almost have to have an internship at some point in their collegiate careers in order to get an entry-level position. University President Maravene Loeschke has said numerous times that she wishes every student on campus would graduate with some sort of internship experience.

Glenda Henkel, Towson’s internship program coordinator, said that the Career Center advises employers to be especially cognizant of creating and sustaining an educational environment for students: an aspect of potential programs that is especially important for collegiate interns.

Blaise Willig, senior editor at Today Media Custom Communications located in Wilmington, Del., said that learning opportunities go both ways in the employer-intern relationship.
Willig said that a large majority of TMCC interns have come from Towson.

“Interns get real-world experience in the field, improve their skills and enhance their portfolio, while we in turn are able to keep in touch with a dynamic new generation of communicators,” he said.
For years, the educational benefit of interning, and internships themselves, have existed in a definite structure: Interns come in to a business, work for free and pay their dues while gaining experience and education in their field to hopefully be offered a job at the end.

Recent court rulings, however, have made the future of internships less certain.

Over the summer, a New York District Court ruled in favor of two interns who sued their employer, Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The interns were not paid, and the judge ruled that the internship did not foster an educational environment, one of the requirements for unpaid internships demanded by the United States Department of Labor. The case is expected to face the U.S. Court of Appeals some time this year.

If the case is upheld, it could mean a forced change in the structure of internship programs sponsored by for-profit companies.

This uncertain future of internships could spell trouble for job seekers.

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics is predicting an equilibrium in the job market.

That is, while there will not be an abundance of open employment positions, there also won’t be massive unemployment. In this kind of job market, experience will be key, especially for recent graduates. If the case is upheld by the Court of Appeals, it could cause far-reaching ramifications for students attempting to enter the professional world.

Not every for-profit business would continue to run their unpaid internship programs, whether it be because they are unable to, or simply because they are unwilling to pay their interns.
This would lead to increased competition among college students to secure high quality internships.

In many fields and corporate circles, interns are almost unfailingly unpaid. This is especially true in the media and entertainment industries.

“I don’t foresee us switching to a paid internship program, so [the case being upheld would] probably lead to us shutting [our internship program] down,” Willig said.

Willig did say that TMCC would certainly like to continue working with interns, and the program would have to be reconsidered with their legal team if the case is upheld.

Condé Nast, a mass media company which publishes magazines such as the New Yorker and Vogue, and owns the popular website Reddit, canceled its unpaid internship program just four months after two interns sued the company over wages.

If other organizations adopt similar policies and cancel their programs, students may be impeded from breaking into certain fields of employment, as they lose means of gaining crucial experience.
“If we were across the board to say that students have to be paid, then students might be losing out on some excellent training opportunities,” Henkel said.

Some opportunities, though, would survive.

Nonprofit organizations and certain government agencies are exempt from the rules governing internships that for-profit businesses are forced to abide by, which would allow them to continue offering unique and valuable internship experiences.

Manager of Volunteers at the Maryland Zoo Kristi Giles says that despite the workload designated to interns, the zoo cannot afford to offer paid internships.

But that doesn’t seem to have fazed or discouraged its interns, who have continued to supply the zoo with “great ideas and lots of positive feedback,” Giles said. “As a nonprofit the Zoo makes a commitment to help prepare the next generation of environmental educators, animal care professionals, and nonprofit managers but funding is just not available to pay interns a salary or stipend,” she said. “We try to offer a program that is rich in experiences and hands-on-learning.”

Giles says that the true benefits of internships lie in the students’ accumulation of experience over pay, that they allow students to “exchange ideas and experiences” with senior staff members and “gain hands-on knowledge” in their chosen field.

“Interns play an important role here at the zoo,” Giles said.

The National Aquarium, another nonprofit, brings on interns in its graphic design department for about 12-18 hours a week, depending on a student’s schedule, according to Senior Graphic Designer Jim Heckley.
Student interns at the aquarium are not paid, but are awarded credit by their university or college.

Heckley said that the aquarium tries to challenge interns with new training and experience.

“I like to give our candidates an independent ‘dream project’ to design a major campaign or exhibit graphic identity for the National Aquarium,” he said.
Towson students say that interns should at least get some compensation.

“I think all interns should be paid a small wage, such as $5 an hour, enough to cover gas,” Dilley said.

Senior Ben Smith, who is a paid intern with Zen’s Accounting Service, said that he thought paychecks would help motivate interns to better their workplace performances.

Henkel, who said it would be great if students could be paid, also understands that compensation is not always possible. Some academic disciplines do not allow interns to be paid for their work, believing that compensation effectively distorts the student-mentor relationship into that of an employer and the employee, according to Henkel.

Some universities offer grant programs to students who are taking on unpaid internships.

The University of Maryland, College Park, for example, awarded over 80 grants to students participating in unpaid summer internships in 2013. The grants ranged from $250-$1,250. UMD is bringing the program back for 2014.

Currently, Towson does not offer any comparable University-wide programs, and Henkel said she was not aware of any plans to develop a University-wide grant program for unpaid interns.
The College of Liberal Arts, does, however, award up to 10 grants in values no higher than $500 to students taking on unpaid summer internships.

Henkel said that the Career Center carefully screens companies that want to bring on interns from Towson.

Listings are investigated to make sure that the duties of the intern are not too vague or otherwise questionable.

“A true internship has to be a learning experience first. A true internship has to offer learning opportunities for a student,” she said.


3 Comments »

  • STEPHAN said:

    Dear Cody and Sam,

    Thank you for preparing the article “Future of unpaid internships no longer certain.” I got laid off last year and your article reminded me of the challenge of the job search. It is a challenge for many people. For college students, it is a big jump to go from “completing your classroom requirements of your degree” to “get an entry-level position.”
    I agree that college students have to have an internship to get an entry level position. I got my first entry level position after getting a biology major, taking graduate-level medical courses, working at a clothing retailer, and doing a research internship at George Washington University (GWU). Also, a large proportion of my GWU classmates used an internship to get their current job. These internships include government, for-profit, and non-profit internships.
    Also my fiancée, who is a fourth-year business student, has taught me things that I never learned in undergraduate biology or in graduate public health courses. For some majors, such as biology, there is a lack of training in business concepts. Basic knowledge from business communications, finance, and accounting are very important in life, and are frequently not taught to those outside of business school. The way I learned about business was by working as a statistical research assistant, taking public adult-education courses, and by attending seminars for job seekers.
    At the same time, my professional experience with Microsoft Excel and SAS has really opened the doors for getting interviews at a variety of for-profit and non-profit organizations. Talking with my grad school classmates, such experience has been the difference for me getting an interview or not.
    This winter, I landed a good job. But I would not have gotten there without an internship. Also I like to give credit to my research assistant position which, although it paid under $50k a year, allowed me to get the skills needed for a good position.
    Before I end, I wish to bring up another point. You mention that the US Bureau of Labor Statistics is predicting “… [a] kind of job market [in which] experience will be key.” You also forecast “… increased competition among college students to secure high quality internships.”
    “High quality internships” are good, many will try hard to get them, and many will be disappointed if they don’t get them. But from my experience of working at a university for eight years and attending job seeker seminars, there is hope: You can take a volunteer position and put it on your resume to apply to an entry level position. You can also get a job at many quality companies by having basic skills in Microsoft Word and Excel. Moreover, you can get higher pay if you learn more advanced features of those two software programs.
    Thank you for presenting this informative article on an important issue that affects virtually all of us. I can imagine that students who read this article will have some points of reference when getting their first job. This will be helpful to those who are not sure if what they’re doing is going to lead to a new job. Keep up the good work.

    Sincerely,

    Stephan

  • Bob said:

    Internships and their ilk are a racket.

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