Rise of unpaid student internships sparks concerns

By Leopoldo Rocha

Badger Herald, U. Wisconsin via UWIRE

Rise of unpaid student internships sparks concerns

As internship experience increasingly becomes a critical part of college graduates’ search for employment, some have raised concerned about internships in the private, for-profit sector that do not compensate students for their work.

Ross Perlin, author of the recently-published book “Intern Nation,” said in an email to The Badger Herald internships are a “virtual requirement” in today’s job market, a trend that began in the ’80s and has been growing ever since. He argues the system, although it has some positive aspects, is no longer working.

Perlin describes a trend in which interns are no longer being financially compensated for their work, a trend he said has worsened since the financial crisis of 2008. Perlin said about one-third to one-half of all internships are unpaid.

“The recession since 2008 has only made things worse: Paid internships have become unpaid, unpaid interns have advanced at the expense of regular entry-level jobs and new groups are turning to internships (recent graduates, people in their 30s or 40s switching careers, high school students) with a desperation that employers are taking advantage of,” Perlin said.

According to Perlin, colleges usually ensure internships are educationally beneficial to students but added the growth of the internship process in general has led to colleges becoming “complicit” in the unpaid internship system. Perlin said colleges may do this by posting illegal internships, making internships a requirement and charging students for academic credit gained at unpaid internships.

Stephanie Salazar Kann, an internship coordinator at the U. Wisconsin College of Letters and Science, said while unpaid internships may pose a financial strain on students, they can be of value to students and should therefore not be ruled out by some students.

“Just because an internship is not paid does not mean it is not a quality experience, and I think that is something that oftentimes gets overlooked,” Salazar Kann said.

Salazar Kann added that although some internships do not give a direct wage to students, they might provide alternate forms of compensation for students. Some examples are payment for housing costs as well as providing transportation passes, which allow students to live in more economical areas of cities than the areas in which the companies are based.

A 2010 letter to U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis from 13 college presidents around the nation, including UW System President Kevin Reilly, demonstrates the complexity of the issue. The letter urged the federal government to not regulate student internships, as the presidents were afraid employers would no longer offer these opportunities.

“We are troubled by the Department of Labor’s apparent recent shift toward the regulation of internships,” the letter read. “While we share your concerns about the potential for exploitation, our institutions take great pains to ensure students are placed in secure and productive environments that further their education.”

The letter was in response to the guidelines the DOL released in April 2010 defining what is legally considered to be an unpaid internship in the for-profit private sector. If at least one of these criteria does not apply, the student is therefore legally an employee and is entitled to wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

According to Perlin, a student who feels the law has been violated can file a DOL complaint or file a lawsuit, which he said “takes bravery and patience.” However, he said the interns are responsible for complaints or lawsuits as there is “generally no active enforcement of the law” by state or federal branches of the DOL, such as the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development or the federal DOL Wages and Hours Division.

The law is established on a case-by-case basis, according to John Dipko, spokesperson for the DWD. If someone feels an internship has violated the law, they can contact the DWD, which Dipko said has not happened in more than 10 years. Dipko attributed the lack of complaints at the DWD to students going directly into court or students filing complains to the WHD instead of the DWD so that the WHD could investigate the issue.

According to Dipko, an internship that requires a student to receive academic credit is legal.

However, Robert Schwoch, adviser at the UW School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said students often have to pay for the credit and therefore pay for interning. Schwoch, who also is an adviser to The Badger Herald’s board of directors, said many students might not be able to complete their desired internship due to financial constraints.

Salazar Kann said there is sometimes financial aid for students in order to alleviate some of the financial concerns of taking an internship that requires academic credit. Students may apply for financial aid to help pay for the credit, and there is also a Letters and Sciences internship scholarship available in the summer to sophomores and juniors that comes from UW alumni, ranging from $2,000 to $5,000.

The internship search provides a chance for students to evaluate their abilities as well as circumstances, Salazar Kann said. For example, a student should determine whether they need to be based in Madison, whether they would like a full-time internship and other parameters they should first consider in their search.

“[The search] comes down to students knowing themselves and what is feasible for them. It is a unique time for students to think about their circumstances and aspirations,” Salazar Kann said.

Salazar Kann added students should reach out to their school or college to find internships that are best fit for them, adding that the Buckynet online recruiting system is a great resource for students. She said internships are not the only way to gain experience and develop critical skills for their future, and she, as well as other university career service personnel, works with students to find an alternative method that might better fit them.

According to Schwoch, employers might not be fully aware of the financial problems student may face with unpaid internships, especially those that require academic credit. For this reason, Schwoch advises students to communicate with their employers “very politely” regarding whether there would be any sort of compensation, such as the employer paying for the student’s tuition.

Perlin said although the internship process has various “competing interests,” the last section of his book focuses on solutions he would like to see implemented.

“Students and interns should know and demand their rights. Colleges should look out for their students’ interests,” Perlin said. “Employers should take the longer view, understanding internships as an investment in the next generation and knowing that the way to get the best candidates and turn them into the best employees is through internships that pay a living wage and provide real training.”

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