Bob Dylan once wryly noted that “there’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.” In today’s cutthroat and frequently demoralizing hunt for the coveted summer internship, it’s difficult not to agree with Dylan — the world of internships is often one in which failure, or at least settling for the unpaid, becomes the default outcome.
The issue of paid versus unpaid internships has been evoking passionate, emotional, philosophical, economic and political debate, most recently in a controversial April 4 New York Times Op-Ed by Ross Perlin, entitled “Unpaid Interns, Complicit Colleges.”
Taking the anti-University and pro-student position, his opinion managed to spark both a flurry of vehement letters to the editor and an ardent pro-internship rebuttal delivered by UR’s own Career Center director and Assistant Dean, Burton Nadler.
Perlin, a researcher at the Himalayan Languages Project and the author of the new book, “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy,” argues that “instead of steering students toward the best opportunities and encouraging them to value their work, many institutions of higher learning are complicit in helping companies skirt a nebulous area of labor law.”
He describes conducting “hundreds of interviews with interns over the past three years” that led him to “dejected students” at the mercy of colleges and universities, whom he dubs “cheerleaders and enablers of the unpaid internship boom” by condoning the phenomenon of students paying for the “privilege” of working an internship.
Acknowledging that “three-quarters of the 10 million students enrolled in America’s four-year colleges and universities will work as interns at least once before graduating, according to the College Employment Research Institute,” Perlin accuses universities of being “blind to the realities of work in contemporary America.” Citing the Research Firm Intern Bridge, he writes that between one-third and one-half of these student interns will receive no compensation for their efforts and, as unpaid interns, will not be protected under laws against racial discrimination and sexual harassment.
According to the US Department of Labor (DOL), “even if a student worker receives academic credit for an internship, it does not mean that they can work for free.” Unpaid interns are prohibited from doing any work that “contributes to a company’s operations,” meaning tasks that help run a business, such as documenting inventory, filing papers or answering emails, nor can they perform work “that is of any benefit at all to the company.”
There are 6 DOL criteria that must be met by companies in order for internships to be legally unpaid, including restrictions on the training of employees and specifications on what advantages companies can derive from employee’s efforts.
Perlin argues that colleges have made academic credit a “commodity” and are trying to exploit the student in order to profit — internships, he claims, “are a cheap way for universities to provide credit — cheaper than paying for faculty members, classrooms and equipment.”
Nadler, however, who has had more than three decades of experience as a career counselor and has authored numerous books about the job search process, disagreed “whole-heartedly.”
“It’s not exploitation at all,” he said. “We, the Career Center, believe that the student should maximize all experiences outside of the classroom, and we work with students one at a time to support their individual situations. If you want to work after college, it’s imperative that you have had an internship, whether this is fair or unfair.”
Nadler, who has coined the term the “Internship Imperative” and has been instrumental in the recent decision to adjust the name of the Career Center to the “Career and Internship Center,” described himself as having “not a positive perspective, but a realistic perspective.”
“Adults are being let go,” Nadler continued. “It just doesn’t make sense to say that all students should be paid. I must insist that the more internships, the better — paid or unpaid … the internship is the new entry-level job. Economically I’m realistic, though — I don’t look at it emotionally or philosophically. We encourage [students] to get a job if need be in the summer.”
Perlin describes a recent letter from 13 university presidents, not including UR’s, to the DOL asking the government to essentially “look the other way,” as he puts it, while the universities capitalize on lax regulation. The ambiguity of the laws, he says, is enabling the universities to exploit students and to earn money by giving credits that are “cheaper than paying for faculty members, classrooms and equipment.”
His solution: Stop making students pay to work and focus on cooperative education models that combine integrated classroom time with paid work experience.
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Junior Gabriel Unger, an electrical and computer engineering major who worked last summer as a full-time, paid intern in a research lab with the U.S. Air Force, had opinions similar to Perlin.
“I have no idea why anyone would do an unpaid internship,” he said. “I would never take one because I need the money for tuition, but it does depends on the field and on how much the actual experience in the internship is worth to you … Maybe for something like political science, the money itself might not be nearly as important as the connections you make or the experience you get.”
Unger has secured a paid research internship for this summer at MIT’s Lincoln Labs and said that although the work he will do this summer might not be the subject of his future work, he hopes to garner “connections both in the industry and for grad school” and also hopes that it could lead to a job after graduation.
Take Five Scholar Danielle Wedde performed statistical analyses as a full-time, paid intern at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in North Carolina last summer.
A math major taking her fifth year in English, Wedde has had two other paid summer internships, both in math, but expressed ambiguous feelings on internships based on her future aspirations to go into academia.
“I don’t think they’re vital,” Wedde said. “My internship at the EPA was useful to help me determine what I wanted to do, and I would do it again, but it depends on the career you’re pursuing. For some people, [internships] aren’t appropriate. They’re useful to help students figure out what they want to do, but if you want to go into academia, they really have no use.”
Senior Sarah Karp, an economics and art history double major who has had two unpaid internships, one as a government relations intern at Carnegie Hall in NYC and one as an intern for a member of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium through UR’s Internships in Europe program, cited UR’s role in her internship success.
“Without [having been] accepted into the Internships in Europe, I doubt I would have been able to acquire an internship in the European Parliament, especially as an American student,” Karp said.
She did, however, express concerns about unpaid internships, saying that “the internship with the European Parliament was more of a financial burden because it was a summer abroad program, but the decision to sacrifice a summer of paid work was well worth the investment.”
“Even though an unpaid internship is not an ideal situation financially, if appropriate limits are put in place regarding labor laws, the hopefully fulfilling experience will speak for itself,” Karp continued.
Senior Derek Murphy, a film studies and brain and cognitive science double major, participated in the art department sponsored Art New York program last spring that allows students to both intern and study for a semester in New York City.
Murphy’s unpaid internship at a small documentary film company afforded him eight UR credits, for which he paid full UR tuition, excluding room and board expenses that are given to Art NY participants to put toward the cost of living in New York City during the semester.
“Although I did gain some concrete career-related skills, the most important knowledge I gained was what it’s like to start out in the field,” he said. “When I began my film internship, I was convinced that I would enter the film business after graduation. By the end of the semester I had changed my career path completely, and decided to focus on my other major as a potential career path. Though I didn’t like my internship and felt it hadn’t broadened my prospects for future employment in the least, it was still an invaluable experience because it helped me switch my focus to something less quixotic.”
Murphy also noted that he felt his employer was “definitely deriving an immediate advantage from [his] activities,” in violation of the stated labor criteria.
“I spent the majority of my time doing extremely basic grunt work, which I learned nothing from … Had I been at a vocational school or under academic educational instruction, I would have learned scores more. My employer was also consistently too busy to think of meaningful tasks to assign me,” he related.
Based on his belief that in the field of arts and media such unsatisfying internships are often regrettably the norm, Murphy advises potential interns to have prior knowledge of the six DOL criteria, to make sure that one’s employer knows them before starting, and to “go with the advice of friends who’ve worked an internship over the platitudes of company representatives,” who often falsely portray their internships as “incredible, earthshaking opportunities until you show up and find out that there are five other interns and none of you have anything to do.”
Senior studio art major Jenn Bratovich, who also participated in Art NY with an internship in the photography department of Rolling Stone magazine, and has been an editorial intern at Open Letter Books at UR and a studio intern at the local letterpress studio Pistachio Press, expressed similar frustrations and qualified successes.
“By working at Rolling Stone, I learned a lot about the media industry and about how a large corporate magazine is run,” she said. “I also learned that I never want to have a career with one. When I step back, I can see that each of [my three internship] experiences speaks to the kind of ideal work I want to be doing — something small, independent, and really hands on where I have the freedom to work creatively and hold myself to standards of craftsmanship, quality materials, and meaningfulness.”
She expressed her conviction that “internships are usually a fine tradeoff between companies and students, as long as it actually applies to what the student is studying, the student is actually doing something useful and productive and the student is only spending as much time per week as they would in a class of comparable credit hours.”
She also lamented the fact that many magazines, publishing companies and design studios that appeal to her aspirations and background only take unpaid interns, a financial unreality for her post-graduation. Bratovich cited her frustration with the post-college unpaid internship, describing internships in the art world where “people will expect you to come in nearly full time without giving you anything but a $10-per-day lunch stipend.”
“I think this is really unacceptable, not only because of the labor law issues, but also because it really limits who is able to participate and makes working for these companies some kind of privilege, and that’s really unsettling,” Bratovich continued. “I don’t know who can work full time in New York City without pay and still pay rent, but it surely isn’t me.”
Elizabeth Cohen, Associate Professor of Art and Art History and director of the Art NY program, provides participants in the program with help fine-tuning resumes and cover letters, articulating goals, and following up with internship providers after students independently apply.
In addition to expressing her belief that unpaid internships offer students the invaluable opportunity “to be part of the professional environment in the field of their choice and to get a sense about the mission of the company or institution,” she affirmed the important role that unpaid internships play.
“I’m not sure how many businesses and non-profits would continue to have many internships if they were paid,” she said. “Unpaid internships extend this opportunity to many more students that might not qualify, in their view, for a paid internship, which often requires more skills than an unpaid one.”
Nadler stressed that UR students have the opportunity to participate in unpaid internships with less of a financial burden thanks to the existence of Reach funds. According to the Career Center website, Reach funds “are available thanks to the generous gifts of UR friends and alumni who believe in the importance of experiential opportunities” and “enable students to participate in career related experience regardless of financial constraints.”
Reach has provided over $2 million to “deserving candidates” since the inception of the program.
Due in part to the championing of internships in the Career Center, and seemingly in contrast to Perlin’s staunch belief in student exploitation and student’s ambivalence, the Career Center reports that 96 percent of UR students have had at least one “career-related experience” prior to the beginning of their senior year. Based on Spring 2010 data, 74 percent of seniors had accepted offers for full-time positions or internships post-graduation, were considering offers, or had already received acceptances to graduate and professional schools.
Buletti is a member of
the class of 2013.