Internships fail to offer equal opportunity

Cary Carr

Originally posted at the Temple News, here.  

With internship experience graduates are more likely to land a job. But at times, students are exploited and some aren’t able to take advantage of the opportunity because of financial responsibilities.

Getting a bachelor’s degree doesn’t hold as much weight as it used to with both the dismal job market and the economy looking grim, so students need to set themselves a part from the rest of their graduating class. They need experience, work-ethic and a boost to their résumé. They need internships.

According to research from the Graduate Management Admissions Council, this year’s graduates who had an internship were 26 percent more likely to land a job after graduation than their peers who didn’t.

Unfortunately, the majority of internships are unpaid, sometimes requiring extensive hours and excessive transportation. And while many boast a chance for learning and prospective job opportunities, it’s also a chance for employers to exploit students doing menial labor for free.

Some are even questioning the legality of the practice of hiring unpaid interns.

Two men working on the movie “Black Swan” recently filed suit, claiming Fox Searchlight Pictures violated minimum wage and overtime laws, according to the New York Times. They also asserted that the company did not offer an educational experience, which labor rules require of employers hiring unpaid interns.

Preparing coffee, cleaning the office and getting lunch orders from production staff were a few of the responsibilities plaintiff Alex Footman described.

And it’s not just inane tasks that ruin the credibility of internships. Some programs have their interns doing nothing at all. A friend of mine described his full-time internship as a chance to catch up on homework and lose himself in Netflix–not quite an educational experience.

I’m sure the majority of college students, who are busy in school organizations and other activities while simultaneously taking on a full course load, would rather not be cleaning out coffee pots or staring at a blank computer screen in their free time. But with employers requiring experience to land an interview, there’s no longer much of a choice if you want to compete with thousands of other college grads desperately seeking a salary.

And the true dilemma arises for students with college loans, whose parents aren’t able to support them. They need close to full-time jobs, and balancing that with 15 credits is tricky enough in itself. How can they possibly add an internship to their mounting list of responsibilities?

I have been lucky enough to have the support of both of my parents, who not only pay for my tuition but also my rent and groceries, allowing me to get involved in various organizations as well as several internships on top of my class schedule.   This semester I took my second unpaid internship at Philadelphia Magazine. I’m required to put in a minimum of 16 hours a week and provide my own transportation, but I’m certainly not doing menial tasks. All interns get a chance to pitch and write story ideas as well as improve their editorial skills.   However, the internship is definitely time-consuming and wouldn’t allow room for a part-time job on top of my other responsibilities, leaving me to believe that middle and upper class students get an unfair advantage.

Unpaid internships require students supporting themselves to also fend for themselves when it comes to building an extensive résumé. And those who can’t afford to take on these internships, many of whom are first-generation college students, are the ones who could benefit from the experience the most.

In addition, internships that require students to take college credits don’t provide much of a solution for many of us. Unless already built into a major’s curriculum, adding on credits can prove to be more of an expense than a money saver. Plus, more and more employers expect multiple internships, leaving a loophole in the for-credit policy.

I sympathize with businesses that can barely manage to pay their own employees, let alone interns. But, this does not excuse the exploitation of students desperate for experience. And I have a hunch the big corporations can afford to pay their interns minimum wage, or at least offer lunch.  Instead of pressuring students to take on internships with little guidance, universities should offer supplemental scholarships to first generation college students or those in need of financial aid. With evidence out there that experience pays in the job market, it is vital that the students receive not only direction on which internships to apply for, but also assistance in handling them on top of all of their other responsibilities.

Maybe there’s not a definite solution. As long as jobs require experience and students compete for fewer and fewer job openings, businesses will be able to use and abuse interns. But I hope that universities can step their game up and turn the practice into an equal opportunity that doesn’t just benefit the well-off. I also hope that these businesses can at least offer legitimate educational experience and appreciate the eager students who are devoting their time for free. We’re people too after all.

Cary Carr can be reached at cary.carr@temple.edu.

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