It’s Time for an Update: Internships Need to Be Paid

PC: Clem Onojeghuo

Internships can make or break a college student’s future. Whether they are in relation to the student’s major or not, an internship provides opportunities to apply ideas and teamwork abilities in a true professional setting. In the past couple of years, however, internship sites have been criticized over two huge conflicts: Taking advantage of an intern by assigning them unnecessary work as well as not paying them despite their workload and talent.

According to an article on The Muse written by Cameron Smith, “[interns] bring fresh ideas to the table, spread word of your business to their peers, increase productivity, and often turn into ideal full-time hires.” In other words, an intern effects a lot within a company. They can bring new audience demographics to the table, interest other students of their age to the company, and also help to grow the community. But with internships being unpaid, the opportunity for both companies and students are becoming slimmer.

In 2014, the National Association of Colleges and Employers conducted an executive student survey. Within the survey, they were able to distinguish how important internships were down to the percentage. According to the document, 61 percent of graduating seniors had an internship or co-op experience during their college years. Out of that percentage, 52 percent received job offers before graduation. This statistic proves how important an internship can be for successfully securing a job after college.

The issue, however, lies within an intern’s compensation. 46.5 of the internships received by students before graduation were unpaid. The survey continues to state, “graduates who came from a paid internship and received a full-time job offer generally commanded a higher starting salary than did graduates from an unpaid internship who received full-time job offers.” Therefore, an unpaid internship could be effecting more than just our ability to make money in the present, but also in the future.

Today, many students also work jobs while attending school. According to an article in MarketWatch by Quentin Fottrell, nearly 80 percent of students were working at least part-time in 2013. Coincidentally, I am also a part-time worker and full-time student. From experience, it’s like working two full-time jobs, and takes a lot of time management. Now, add an internship to the mix. In my opinion, the need to work a job has only gone up since 2013. More students are working part-time for a number of reasons: Financial aid, independents, or are responsible for their own spending money. Unfortunately, these reasons are not considered by many companies or colleges.

Having unpaid internships, alone, make the ability to intern with a company a privilege. According to MarketWatch, “Nearly four out of five U.S. students — including those in high school, community college, online college, or traditional college or university — work while in school, a survey by Citigroup and Seventeen magazine found, with the average working student putting in 19 hours a week during the school year.” If a student needs to put in 19 hours a week of work in order to help finances through schooling, then it is even more important that internships pay their students. By paying, the companies may even open their doors to more eligible candidates — who may not have been able to sacrifice the work-time otherwise — to bring fresh ideas and innovative thinking to the table.

The students who can intern at worksites, however, also experience a disadvantage from mentors and employers. Primarily, the pressure to have an internship in order to be employed after college is at an all-time high. The competition has increased tremendously, and can often feel like a heavy weight on one’s shoulders. As a senior, I have had around five internships during my time at Emerson College. That’s a little over one internship a year while sacrificing summers for work. The funny part, however, is that I’m on the lower end of the spectrum. In other words, because I have to work in order to remain financially stable, I have to make a tough decision every summer: to work and make money for the upcoming year, or to intern so that I can get a job after graduation. Unfortunately, the present always takes precedent. This is where a paid internship would come in. If paid internships at high-end sites in my industry were more available, then I wouldn’t have to choose. But because paid internships are so rare, I’ve had to make the choice.

This is another example as to where an internship becomes a privilege. Someone who comes from an extremely financially stable household, for instance, is able to accept many internship opportunities whether or not it is compensated. Because of this circumstance, I’ve known some to graduate with around seven or eight internships under their belts. If we place two résumés together—let’s use mine as an example—with one that has more than five internships, it will look as if the opposite person has more experience than me. I would like to state here that I am proud of my résumé and all that I have accomplished. By no means have I slacked when it comes to getting experience in my field. But the fact that your résumé pretty much makes you or breaks you is what makes the pressure come in.

Everyone is trying to get a job, but in the long run, the playing field isn’t even to begin with. If someone can’t take advantage of as much experience as possible because another element of financial life is getting in the way, then they aren’t able to sacrifice all the time that an internship takes. Internships are meant to be networking and learning experiences. If adding a stipend to the deal is all it takes to ensure that future generations in the industry go in as prepared as possible, then, in my opinion, companies in industries should want to pay their interns.

Because internships are looked at as educational value, they are often accepted within institutions as credit. The credits, however, often require more hours than that of a class worth the same. Emerson College, for example, provides credit for internships — but only if they are not paid. According to Emerson’s website, the internship must go on for a duration of 12 weeks minimum. Students have an option to choose from receiving four or eight credits depending on the hours. Four credits require 16 to 24 hours per week while eight credits require 32 to 38 hours a week. Four credits for an average class at Emerson, however, only equal out to about three-and-a-half to four hours a week. Not only this, but I’ve learned through experience that the college also doesn’t allow you to have a paid internship for credit — quickly eliminating any internship sites that allow so.

The problems don’t just end in the college curriculum, however, as many internships don’t offer paid options to begin with. In my opinion, they should offer both, so as all students can have the opportunity to gain real-life-professional experience no matter their situation. Besides the issue of unpaid internships, it seems that over the past couple of years, new conflicts have risen. Famous internship sites have been caught mistreating their unpaid interns — forcing them to do errands that a normally paid position would be assigned.

In 2013, Condé Nast announced that it was terminating their internship program. The publisher, who is responsible for infamous publications such as Teen Vogue and Bon Appétit, attracts more than 10 million consumers across its industry. The internship, however, was quickly ruined. According to an article titled, Condé Nast Intern: ‘I cried myself to sleep,’ published by the New York Post, the decision to terminate the internships came after two former Condé Nast interns sued the company. Matthew Leib, an intern at The New Yorker in 2009 and 2010, and Lauren Ballinger, who worked at W magazine in 2009, sued the publisher for “failing to pay them minimum wage — claiming that their measly stipend amounted to less than $1 an hour for their unpaid internships.” Within the article, a past intern for Vogue stated that she spent her time running personal errands for editors. She quit after two months. While some people have disputing opinions about this lawsuit, the problem here is clear: Interns need to be paid, and shouldn’t be taken advantage of.

Condé Nast wasn’t the first large publisher to be hit with a lawsuit either. In February of 2012, Hearst — publisher of big-name magazines such as ELLE and Cosmopolitan — former Harper’s Bazaar intern Diana Wang sued for similar reasons as Leib and Ballinger. According to the article, she was working up to 55 hours a week without payment. While this lawsuit didn’t lead to terminating the program, it put elements into perspective. Unfortunately for Wang, suing the company affected her career, as she told the New York Post that she was having difficulty landing a full-time job. When this article was published in 2013, she was selling granola in Columbus, Ohio.

Both cases make it very clear. Primarily, interns will do anything to get into their dream industry. But should they really have to do everything and anything that they are asked for? Secondly, interns should be paid. While a unique situation, someone working 55 hours a week should be paid if they were a full-time worker. If an intern is doing errands for editors, then they should be paid as personal assistants.

Overall, our society is due for a dramatic change in the way that we look at internship programs. Not only do internship sites must be willing to change, but colleges must consider it as well. In an article by Susan Adams on Forbes published in 2014, the journalist states, “non-profits and government agencies are relying on free labor.” Not only this, Adams found data that society has insisted that unpaid internships take jobs from what would be entry-level positions. As someone who has been an intern for Boston-based companies, I can attest to this. Work that I am doing is that of an entry-level position. I’ve been fact-checking, pitching and writing articles, transcribing, and even working the desk. While this is good experience for me, one can’t help but think whether or not it is fair that an intern isn’t being paid for entry-level responsibilities.

Luckily, some internship sites are taking note of the recent societal opinions for paid and unpaid programs. They’ve looked at the statistics, and rather than staying back and allowing their internships to be a privilege, they are allowing them to be an open choice to all demographics. BuzzFeed, for example, created a writer’s fellowship in 2015. In an article on BuzzFeed, the company stated, “With the mission of diversifying the broader media landscape by investing in the next generation of necessary voices, BuzzFeed’s Emerging Writers Fellowship is designed to give writers of great promise the support, mentorship, and experience necessary to take a transformative step forward in their careers.”

The fellowship, overall, is a four-month program that allows fellows to be mentored and guided while also receiving financial support. According to the article, fellows receive a stipend of $12,000 for their 4-month commitment. Therefore, through providing financial support, it allows a more diverse demographic of students to apply and receive the opportunity. The position is considered full-time, but doesn’t say anything about college graduation requirements. BuzzFeed began the program in 2015 — a short timeline after Hearst and Condé Nast’s lawsuits. Luckily, there are more fellowship options for those who want to gain more professional experience. Unfortunately, many of them are for graduates and not for those within college.

After doing some research, some colleges are even beginning to change their protocol. New York University, for example, believes that students should be compensated for their work. Their website states, “Although an internship placement (either paid or unpaid) may be a co-requisite for a course, students should receive credit only for academic work that is assessed by an instructor as part of a course — not for the professional development that they receive through their placement.” Therefore, NYU accepts internships for credit that are paid. As all colleges should, but what most fail to do, NYU is giving credit based off the academic work that the student is expected to hand in. The professional experience and responsibilities at their internship, however, are separate. Therefore, rather than seeing the two lumped together, the university has progressively separated them by welcoming the option of a paid internship for academic credit.

Overall, the internship and educational industries need to work together. With new generations coming, and older ones moving out of their jobs, it is important to continuously grow industry communities to be successful. If students are less likely to have internships, then they are less likely to be updated with programs or have professional experience when it comes to graduation — limiting job applications. BuzzFeed and NYU are only two examples of programs that are progressing with the needs of society. It is time that the rest of the companies and education systems do so as well so that all students are ensured quality experiences and opportunities both in and out of college no matter their economic status or responsibilities.

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