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Work for Free?

On the subway last week I noticed a college-age woman lugging two big garment bags.  No, she had not gone shopping; most likely she was a fashion magazine intern schlepping downtown to deliver clothing to a photo shoot.  For her “educational” efforts, the student was earning college credits that cost her parents thousands of dollars.  Around the country, thousands of other interns toil away, doing much the same gofer work, making internships a 21st century version of indentured servitude.

Earlier this month, an unpaid intern for Harper’s Bazaar filed a lawsuit accusing the Hearst Corporation of violating federal and state laws for not paying her for performing what amounted to a full-time job.  The law firm representing the intern is trying to make the case a class action lawsuit for hundreds of unpaid interns, arguing that companies are replacing paid workers and not providing a true educational experience. Last year the same law firm filed a similar suit against the producers of “Black Swan” for their use of interns.   An online debate on “Do Unpaid Internships Exploit College Students?” recently tackled this topic.

While the debate continues and these cases wind their way through the courts, we must consider what to advise our adult children who too often find that unpaid internships are the only way to get a foot in the door. (Internships of dubious educational value are not limited to the media; they run the gamut from government to retail to non-profit. Business school internships are among the few paid slots.)

The reality is there’s often no other option. While a fair number of internships are spent at the copy machine, many are action-packed learning experiences that offer an opportunity to learn on-the-job and, equally important, to discover if this is the place to launch a career.  As a journalism professor, I have seen innumerable students learn skills and get started on careers through internships. It’s now standard operating procedure for students, both while in school and sometimes after graduation.  Often the only way new grads can get a shot at a paid position is by interning and making themselves indispensible.

So, as the summer internship application process gears up, I pass along a few lessons to share with your student to maximize the unpaid work experience–that you are actually paying for as many internships require college credit!

  • Target companies where your student wants to work after graduation; there’s no point in offering free labor to a place where they have no desire to be employed.
  • Do research to get the inside scoop from previous interns to find the companies and supervisors who offer the most educational experience for your unpaid buck.
  • Treat the internship like a job in terms of dress, demeanor, and most important, positive attitude.
  • Say no if it’s financially out of the question.  A grad student interviewed for a “dream” summer internship at a top magazine only to find that the unpaid position required a four-day-a-week commitment.  She also needed to work part-time to pay her rent so she turned down the offer and interned elsewhere two days a week.
  • Tell your student not to be afraid to negotiate.  Most colleges limit interns to 20 hours a week during the academic year.  If an internship is pushing for more the student can rightly refuse, citing school work and other classes.
  • Stay in contact with the supervisors, letting them know of continued interest in a full-time job.  Many times there are happy endings, especially when a position needs to be filled quickly with a known quantity.


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