June 22, 2015

Internships and Inequality

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

It’s summer break now for most students, many of whom are using this time to do a summer internship. Internships can be a great way to learn firsthand about what it’s like to work in a particular industry. They might be a foot in the door for future employment. Or they might be a costly waste of time.

Let’s consider the best case scenario: an internship that is truly educational, giving the intern exposure to a field that they might not have gotten otherwise. Maybe they get paid hourly or a small stipend, make valuable connections and have something important to add to their resume. I write letters of recommendation for several students a year for internships, and many of the internships for which they are applying sound great. One of our pre-med students was selected for a program that brings a handful of students from across the country to a hospital setting and provides housing and basic living expenses.

For many students, an internship might be out of the question. Perhaps they cannot afford to live away from home and there aren’t many opportunities for internships where they are from. Others must work over the summer and can’t take on an unpaid internship or one with just a small stipend. Most internships do not provide a living wage, let alone housing like the one I mentioned above.

This means that for many students, summer internships aren’t feasible because of their location or their family income. They might miss out on valuable career and networking opportunities. Of course, some internships are the result of pre-existing networks. Someone I went to school with had an internship with an Academy Award winning movie director who just happened to be a family friend. He benefited from his family’s connections, being supported by his family, and not needing to earn money to for tuition. He was building an impressive resume in ways few others could match.

I needed to work to save money for tuition and my living expenses during summers as a student, so although I would look for a job or an internship where I went to school, I couldn’t afford to pay rent and living expenses and save money for the next academic year. I ended up going home each summer and working in low-wage jobs, either in retail or waiting tables. Neither would be post-college resume stepping stones, nor would I make contacts that would help in getting an entry-level position at a company with growth potential.

I did, however, get an internship one semester during the academic year. I was starting to think about career options, and went to the campus internship office. A casting agency was looking for an intern, and I thought that sounded interesting. I signed up for an 8-unit internship after a brief interview at the agency. I would spend three days a week there, often with little to do besides answering the phone and opening the mail.

At first I thought it was great: I could get credit for reading books for my other classes, since the phone hardly rang and the mail didn’t take long to open. The agency was just a two-person operation, and they were almost never there. Sometimes they traveled to do casting sessions, but I really wasn’t sure where they were. Maybe business was bad; I had no idea since I sat in the office alone for hours on end. Sometimes I watched TV to pass the time. At the end of the semester I knew no more about the business of casting than I did at the beginning.

Needless to say, I didn’t learn anything there. I didn’t make any valuable connections, since I almost never interacted with the two people in the company. I didn’t get paid; in fact I paid quite a bit of money for the “opportunity” in the form of tuition dollars. According to the College Board, private school tuition for the past academic year (2014-2015) averaged $31,231. If a student at a private school like the one I went to signed up for an 8-unit internship, it might cost them (or their parents) about $15,000.

At the time, as a 20-year-old college student, I didn’t know that internships should be different. I didn’t know that the law requires that internships provide some kind of training and are not supposed to just be a substitute for hiring a low-wage worker. It was easy (although expensive) college credit.

As author Ross Perlin writes in Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, Disney World has a large internship program where college students from across the country essentially do low-wage work for the summer for college credit. They must stay in Disney-owned housing, the money for which is taken directly out of their paychecks, sometimes leaving them with very little take-home pay. Interns are recruited from around the country and the world to work for the summer, despite the availability of local Orlando residents willing and able to work.

But in recent years interns have been fighting back, particularly within the entertainment industry, which has benefited significantly from the large number of people hoping to work within it. Viacom recently settled a lawsuit brought by former interns, making over 1,000 former unpaid interns eligible for back pay.

Interns have alleged that the kind of work that they have done--getting coffee, taking out the trash, running personal errands for employees, mailing boxes, and other menial tasks, often for many hours a week--is not educational. While this might be common practice at many companies, it is illegal.

According to federal law, an employer should not be the primary beneficiary from internship arrangement; otherwise it should be a paid position. It is illegal to claim that a position is an internship simply for the purpose of not paying someone. Interns have filed other lawsuits against entertainment industry giants, causing some to only hire interns they will pay or eliminate internship programs all together.

In a tight job market, internships can be a blessing for those who can afford to work without pay if they actually do allow students to learn something about an industry. I have former students who later found jobs in companies they interned at, and current students clamoring to get hands-on experience in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors.

People eager to enter industries might be willing to work for no pay, if they can afford to. But internships must also be recognized as a class of easily exploited workers, particularly if an educational or training element is not part of the experience. How else do internships reflect and reproduce inequality?


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