College internships: Servitude or stepping stone?

When Lauren Berger was a college freshman, her mother, a math teacher, saw a news segment on the importance of internships. So, she called her 18-year-old daughter and told her, “Get an internship.”

That turned out to be the best advice Berger ever got, igniting a passion that led to 15 internships, a full-time career as a speaker and author, and a royal title of sorts.

Berger is the self-crowned “Intern Queen,” so stated in her peppy website of that same name and in her recent book, “All Work, No Pay,” which chronicles her career as an intern extraordinaire.

“I was pushed into it by my mother,” she said. “But in that first internship, a light bulb went off, and I realized the importance of networking and professional experiences and of creating goals and taking the necessary steps of going after them.”

A communications major with an interest in the entertainment field, Berger won her first internship by calling a local public relations agency. She used that same direct path to win summer internships with entertainment media firms in New York and California.

“Nobody needs to do 15 internships, but I encourage students to do at least two before they graduate,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in California.

“Getting those two internships is just as important as getting good grades in school. Employers want experience.”

A study released last month by Millennial Branding found that while 91 percent of employers believe that students should have between one and two internships before they graduate, half had not hired any interns in the past six months.

Nationally, about half of internships are unpaid, while others offer token stipends.

In the book “Intern Nation,” author Ross Perlin brings a critical analysis to the surge in internships, contending that the 1 million to 2 million interns schlepping coffee and making copies each year are displacing paid employees. Perlin reports that 3 percent of college students at four-year colleges did internships in 1980; 75 percent do so today.

As internships have multiplied, so have complaints. There have been a spate of lawsuits by interns charging that they were exploited as free labor to perform the menial and grunt jobs normally done by paid employees.

Under the law, unpaid internships must be educational experiences in which the interns receive training under supervision. Interns cannot replace or displace regular employees. However, there’s little monitoring and little attention to reports of abuses.

In her burgeoning “Intern Queen” empire, Berger now uses interns herself but is careful about what she asks them to do. “If my interns are off for the day, my business still runs great,” she said.

Berger understands the criticism that internships favor college students who already have an edge because they can afford to pay to work. They can accept unpaid internship at a New York ad agency or Boston tech firm because their parents pay their costly living expenses.

Berger counters that students can apply for virtual internships, which often involve helping companies with their social media, or seek intern positions in their local communities. Even small towns offer a local radio station, a chamber of commerce or a newspaper, she said.

“Unpaid internships require 15 hours per week. You can easily get that in and still work a paid job waiting tables a few nights a week,” she said.

In her internships, Berger was asked to do menial jobs, including making coffee. That is not a problem, she said, unless that’s all an intern does.

“If you are making coffee as well as researching segments and coordinating guests in the green room at a television studio, I don’t see the problem,” she said.

The value of internships is that they help students define their interests, Berger said.

“No matter what the outcome, you will leave an internship more informed than when you walked in,” she said.

In speaking engagements around the country, parents often approach Berger with the same predicament: “My 25-year-old son graduated college and is now parked on my couch. How do I get him off the couch?”

Berger urges parents to become engaged before their unemployed college grad takes up residence on the living room sofa, prodding their children to investigate internships at the start of college.

“Helicopter parenting does not need to be bad thing,” she said. “The majority of students I see heavily pursuing internship opportunities have their families pushing them to do it.”

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

41 comments Add your comment

Lee

June 18th, 2012
5:42 am

My company uses interns with great success. In the past ten years, I can think of only one new hire that wasn’t an intern or a co-op. If my memory serves me, I think the last four new hires were made an offer while they were still interning.

The advantages are that the company gets to observe a prospective employee in real-world settings. We get to see how they interact with others, their strengths and weaknesses, their attitude, etc, etc.

In return, the intern/co-op gets real-world experience, they get name recognition, they make contacts, and in my company, they get paid fairly well.

While I don’t doubt that there are some companies who view the intern as cheap labor, there are many more that view them the way my company does. Conversely, if you are an intern and your sole job seems to be making coffee and copies, this might not be a company that you would want to work for.

Bottom line, when a company posts a job and gets 400+ applications, you need something that puts your resume on the short stack. An internship or co-op may be the deciding factor.

Dr. Craig Spinks/ Georgians for Educational Excellence

June 18th, 2012
5:54 am

Howard Finkelstein

June 18th, 2012
7:33 am

As usual, no good deed goes unpunished.

Tired

June 18th, 2012
8:00 am

All of the interns I’ve had over the past 5 years have leveraged their experience to get full-time jobs in their field of interest after graduation. That’s no small feat in this economy. Millenials get a bad name in the workforce, and in some cases deservedly so, but my current interns are smart, hard-working, conscientious, and a joy to have in the office.

mystery poster

June 18th, 2012
8:08 am

Wow, I can make over $14,000 a month on the Internet. Who knew?

Bayou Philosopher

June 18th, 2012
8:41 am

Internships are a good thing, but there should be no “free” ones. All interns should receive some kind of pay even if it’s just minimum wage. You get paid to flip burgers or to dig ditches. Medical students get paid (not much) to do their internships. My daughter in college (Georgia State) is being pushed toward unpaid internships by her advisors. This is not right.

Tired

June 18th, 2012
8:53 am

Bayou, by your philosophy then most non-profits and most government agencies could not have an internship program. Sure, Georgia Pacific and Turner and Children’s Healthcare and so on should be able to pay an intern something. But not everyone can. I would have loved to have hired my interns for full-time positions, but we haven’t had any of those open up for 5 years – whenever someone resigns for a better-paying job, the position just falls off the headcount list.

Lj

June 18th, 2012
9:05 am

Internship wages are a function of supply and demand. Engineering interns at Georgia Tech regularly make $15-25 an hour.

William Casey

June 18th, 2012
9:09 am

I’m with Bayou about interns being paid SOMETHING, even if it’s just enough to cover transportation and lunch. I’d take a look at the person in charge’s compensation to determine whether this is possible.

A Conservative Voice

June 18th, 2012
9:13 am

Coca-Cola had an ad many years ago that stated simply……”Nothing Beats A Coke”…..well, that ad was overly broad…..I say there is something that “Beats A Coke”…….that something is called “Experience” and folks, there is “Nothing That Beats It”……..ask a mommy with “two” kids….. Anyway you can attain it, do it……you’ll never be sorry.

Csoby

June 18th, 2012
9:41 am

HMM Wonder if this goes against the Federal fair wage act…of course we could do away with min wage and let the biz pay their interns someting..otherwise a complete ponzi schem but then higher education has become that

Choices

June 18th, 2012
9:49 am

If you feel that your child (or you) should not work in an internship that does not pay then don’t do it. That is the great thing about choices, you get to make them yourselves. As one reader noted above, engineering internships pay. May I suggest that you try to acquire one of these as an option?

carlosgvv

June 18th, 2012
9:58 am

There’s no doubt that an internship is almost always going to be a good thing. There’s also no doubt that business will not pay you so much as a nickel if it is at all possible.

Entitlement Society

June 18th, 2012
9:58 am

I would think an unpaid internship is better than no experience at all. Why would one turn down a chance at experience in one’s field? In this day and age, a child should consider him/herself fortunate to be granted an internship, not be whining about pay. Experience today = pay in the future. It’s all part of learning.

Atlanta Mom

June 18th, 2012
10:13 am

These students should be paid at least minimum wage. Presumably both parties benefit.

Sensationalistic

June 18th, 2012
10:21 am

As my dad says, “Make a career out of something you like and get paid to be able to afford the hobbies and interests you love.”

With my engineering co-op, I am making that happen. Sorry to the people that don’t have paid internships. Either you will get it made up in the end (law and medical) or you shouldn’t be expecting too much of a pay (NGO and non-profit).

Education is a long term investment; properly defer your loans until you can pay them off soundly.

catlady

June 18th, 2012
10:42 am

As part of my master’s degree program, I was required to have unpaid internships in various parts of the university, or other colleges. Great experience! Let me know what I was NOT interested in doing, and I met folks who were a great help to me. Plus, I was free, educated, eager labor for them!

Janet

June 18th, 2012
10:43 am

15 hours per week doesn’t sound like much to me. Most college students have an extra 15 hours a week if they give up their free time hanging out with friends. I did 4 internships total in college (all of them unpaid), but at least one of them REQUIRED 40 hours per week and was UNPAID. I maintained my job waiting tables at the Olive Garden for all of them. But actually took the quarter off of school and increased my Olive Garden hours to do the 40 hour per week internship. It paid off in the end because a few years later, that same company hired me.

mystery poster

June 18th, 2012
11:36 am

Time magazine had an article on this very topic a few weeks ago.

mystery poster

June 18th, 2012
11:49 am

I found the link. The title of the article is “The beginning of the end of the unpaid internship.”

http://moneyland.time.com/2012/05/02/the-beginning-of-the-end-of-the-unpaid-internship-as-we-know-it/

CollegeGrad

June 18th, 2012
11:51 am

I’m a recent college graduate and I worked an unpaid internship and 2 other jobs on the side. Was it hard? Yes. Was it worth it? YES. Even though I would sometimes wish I was getting paid to do what I was interested in at the intership to not have to work those menial jobs on the side, the internship has brought me to far bigger and better opportunites-including an assistantship in grad school! As long as interns are getting to learn and not being “overworked,” I believe unpaid internships are fine. Right now I am looking into future internships. Being older and more “on my own” now the propsect of a paid intership is of course great, but I will settle with taking a few loans and being a little more frugal for a few months to get the expierence. It will pay off in the long run, it just requires planning before hand to be able to make the proper arrangements!

Prof

June 18th, 2012
12:19 pm

@ Csoby, June 18th, 9:41 am :”HMM Wonder if this goes against the Federal fair wage act.”

I believe that this federal labor law DOES cover unpaid internships, and prohibits those with duties that are not job-related. …like doing secretarial work or fetching coffee.

Nikole

June 18th, 2012
1:31 pm

How do you work an internship and 2 side jobs? My senior year of college I went back home due to an upcoming semester of student teaching. My part time job hours had to be cut dramatically so that I could work full time in the school. I do think interns should be given some type of stipend. It’s great experience, but we all didn’t go off to college with a bank account full of money to support us in our four years.

mystery poster

June 18th, 2012
4:05 pm

@Csoby and Prof:
From the TIME magazine article:
Congress passed a number of laws regulating them [internships], including the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which specifically lays out a 6-point test, still in use today, for hiring unpaid interns:

1. The internship must be similar to training that would be given in an educational environment;
2. The internship must be for the benefit of the intern;
3. The intern does not displace regular employees;
4. The employer derives no immediate advantage from the intern;
5. The intern is not entitled to a job at the end of the internship; and
6. The intern understands that he or she is not entitled to wages.

Robert Braathe

June 18th, 2012
5:06 pm

You want to see a virtual internship program that is run with the students in mind?
Check out what we have to offer. We provide training, free classes, referrals and real experience
http://www.braatheenterprises.com/internships

justbrowsing

June 18th, 2012
6:56 pm

I remember my intern experience many moons ago. I was willing to do the work for free (invlauable experience), and ended up with not only gaining invaluable experience, but was also paid $15 an hour to boot. I was so excited about the opportunity, that money was not the motivating factor. Attitude can be everything also. I had the only paid internship at the time in our department.

Truth in Moderation

June 18th, 2012
6:59 pm

How about an old fashioned after school job? In the ’70’s, my high school had early release (2:00) for Juniors and Seniors that wanted to work after school. I was caught up with my academic credits (Honor’s Society, College Prep track) and wanted to earn money for college. At 15, I was able to get an after school job with a commercial art supply store. I parlayed that into a full time summer job for two years, and later worked there over college breaks and summers. After I graduated, I worked there until I went to graduate school. I always had cash for school expenses and gained extensive knowledge in running a retail business. I never had to compete and hunt around for summer/seasonal jobs. I never worked for free.

Anonmom

June 18th, 2012
9:39 pm

Back to my oldest — rising Junior engineer at out-of-state univ. — I spent a very long time asking everyone I knew if they would take him on as an intern between his freshman and sophomore year. I learned that it was “illegal” to have an “unpaid” internship (at least many of the folks I was in contact with believed that to be the case). I was having a very hard time giving him away (no comments please about helicoptering please — he was out of state and I was here). I finally find a contact who would take him on for one week at minimum wage in a civil engineering gig (he’s a Mechanical engineering major) — but he couldn’t go past 30 hours. He had to really track his time…. scrupulously. They liked him and it expanded into a full 6 weeks. Next year (this summer) — round two — here we went again — no one around for unpaid internships but my husband found someone to take interview him for biotech — now this one is full time and has a stipend so he’s moving up in the world. ‘We’ve made the “first contact points” but he’s had to do everything else for the jobs. Now, there’s the middle child — he wanted to work with a friend’s mom in finance — she’s at one of the big wall street banks — same deal — “can’t take anyone one without pay” “no money in the budget to take you on for no pay” — shessh … I don’t really need them to make money — I need them to get the experience … they really don’t have real skills to offer — only a willingness to actually do the grunt work to get the experience on their resume. So the middle one is looking at restaurant work but that’s not the same for him who really wants to go into finance….. There’s merit to it and things to learn but the internship at the bank would have been better for him. So, it’s a catch 22 — I don’t think the firms should be allowed to skirt labor laws and take advantage of people by calling them interns but there is a real need to allow high school and college kids to explore careers and to build their resumes.

Entitlement Society

June 19th, 2012
7:31 am

@AnonMom – just a theory, but I’m wondering if you’re getting so much rejection on behalf of your children because YOU’RE the one doing the applying for them. It looks like as a mom you mean well and are only trying to help them get their foot in the door, but companies look at it in a completely different way. They just see a meddling parent. They want an ambitious student who is a self-starter and has the initiative to go out, pound the pavement, and find his/her own way, independent of mom or dad. Being out of state isn’t an excuse with today’s technology. Those teenagers can pick up the phone and call contacts just as much as you can!

APS Parent

June 19th, 2012
9:57 am

Unpaid internships represent yet another hidden economic benefit to the “haves” in our society at the expense of the “have-nots” (I admit to being one of the former). Students from well-off families can more easily afford to spend a summer in a non-paying internship, with all its networking opportunities, while their parents foot the bills to support them, whereas many students from working class families may have to accept menial paying jobs without such resume-building possibilities, just to afford to stay in school. Unpaid internships certainly work very well for a certain class of students, but it is the same class that already benefits most from lots of other existing structural advantages (e.g., legacy college admissions, the rise of for-profit SAT/ACT prep courses, the acceptance by college admissions offices of the highest scores from multiple SAT tests). We all like to maintain the fiction that success in our society is purely merit-based but (to paraphrase the late Molly Ivins) the guy most likely to score is the one who was born on third base; he just likes to think he got there by hitting a triple.

Truth in Moderation

June 19th, 2012
11:54 am

@Anonmom There’s a code to get in the game:
Complete Guide to Wall Street internships….
http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2012/06/complete-guide-to-wall-street-internships.html

Anne Bettelheim

June 19th, 2012
11:59 am

SAY NO TO INTERNSHIPS THAT DO NOT OFFER
PRE-APPROVED COLLEGE CREDIT OR AT LEAST MINIMUM WAGE PAY.

The Department of Labor states that internships
should be for the benefit of the intern,
to provide training similar to that given in an educational environment.
Employers should not derive any immediate advantage
from the activities of the intern.

Many employers actively seek unpaid interns
as interns frequently displace regular employees.
Stipends are sometimes offered for meals or transportation.
Stipends are only acceptable if credit is being received.
If credit has not been pre-approved, stipends do not replace
minimum wage, workers’ compensation, overtime.

The fact that a for-profit company is looking for interns is often a red flag.

If a company advertises for unpaid interns
and states that credits are available,
be sure to ask which colleges have previously given credit.
Call those colleges to verify the response.

If the ad states that the internship is paid,
the amount paid per hour should be posted.
Make sure that the amount is for each hour, rather than for each day or week.

If a paying position actually exists, remember that companies
need to be training employees at their own expense.

Beware of companies that think the opportunity to gain experience,
build a resume or get a reference constitute payment.

The following should lead you to question the ad and the company:
the promise of a stipend, payment or job at the end of an internship;
the promise of a potential green card; the promise of free goods.

Nancy J. Leppink, of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour division, said
“If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an
internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many
circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid
and still be in compliance with the law.”

A true non-profit will have IRS classification.
It will operate for the common good and not to generate individual wealth.

WE HAVE A RESPONSIBILITY TO EACH OTHER TO REFUSE UNPAID LABOR.

AS CONSUMERS, WE SHOULD NOT SUPPORT COMPANIES WHICH USE UNPAID LABOR.

This abuse is occurring in many fields including medical and dental practices,
legal firms, financial services, accounting firms, print, media, film,
interior and general design, retail environments,
fashion and apparel industries,
performing and visual arts, art galleries,
electrical/plumbing/construction trades,
architecture, real estate, restaurants and bars, catering services,
event planning services, web site creation and maintenance.

Print and post this everywhere—
high schools, colleges, coffee shops, work places.
Pass this on to your friends, your family, your neighbors.
Post it on Facebook and Twitter.

Send this to every job board or Craigslist ad posted by for-profit organizations
seeking interns without pay or pre-approved credit.
Go to Craigslist as often as you can. Pick a location.
Double click jobs and search for internship.
Copy and paste this in response to the ad.

A very informative article can be seen at:
http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/lifestyle/2010/07/how-to-know-if-an-unpaid-internship-is-illegal/

To see the Department of Labor guidelines for internship:
http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.htm

To report a company which you believe has used you illegally, contact
the Wage and Hour Division at: http://www.wagehour.dol.gov,
or the U.S. Department of Labor at 1-866-487-9243.

LJ

June 19th, 2012
1:35 pm

Anne,

I realize this may be difficult to understand but individuals are allowed to freely enter a contract with another individual. There is not a single rule, regulation, or organization that is forcing students to take internships, paid or unpaid.

The choice of a company to offer internships is exactly that- a choice. They have no obligation to do so and make the decision based on a perceived benefit that exceeds the cost. For fields where there is currently a surplus of workers many companies see their investment being better spent on getting their pick of the best laborers in the workforce. If they chose to offer any internship it is typically unpaid because there is no shortage of students who are willing to work for free in order to have some hope of getting a job out of school.

My company hires both paid and unpaid interns based on experience and perceived value. We work in a niche industry that can be very difficult to get into. Students, and even graduates, who don’t have the hard skills necessary to be productive we will typically offer an unpaid internship to. They are not forced to take it and they typically have alternative avenues for employment. Occasionally we find someone who is the right fit and is willing to make the investment to work part time for free and learn the necessary skills.

You can argue all you want about how its not “fair” for students to not get paid, but I disagree entirely with you. My trump card in this argument is that I actually am in a position to hire people and my opinion is based on experience, not warm and fuzzy feelings.

If you feel no intern should go unpaid then I encourage you to start your own company where you can pay under-qualified and underachieving students to your heart’s content. Let me know how it goes.

If, however, you try and compel me by force to pay all interns you may notice a dramatic drop in the amount of students we are willing to hire because, again, the payoff just isn’t there for us(and being a private business our evil end goal is of course profit). By forcing my company, and others, to pay ALL interns you would be exacerbating the current situation by denying valuable experience and skills to students who recognize the difficult road they have ahead of them.

Truth in Moderation

June 19th, 2012
1:59 pm

Gwinnett County charter high school, GSMST, requires both Juniors and Seniors to complete semester and year-long internships for course credit. The school supplies some internships, while others must seek out their own. Some are paid, some are not, but school credit is given. High tech businesses often work with the school councilor to place interns. I think it is a great program, and they enter college already with some work experience under their belts.

Claire

June 19th, 2012
3:11 pm

I was able to turn my internship into a career about 15 years ago so I think its a great way to get your foot in the door. It was a paid position though. Not a huge amount … getting paid something was the only way I could have done it as my husband and I were just starting out and on our own financially. It seems awful to not pay something to kids about to graduate from college.

Claire

June 19th, 2012
3:17 pm

AnonMom- you are the epitome of the helicopter mom.. it doesn’t matter that you are in the same state or another state. You are working and working hard I might add, on his behalf. Its understandable you want to help your kids but there comes a time when you need to let junior stand on his own. You might be surprised how enterprising he/she might be on their own. Propping them up is doing them no favors.

LJ

June 19th, 2012
3:26 pm

Claire-

I agree. AnonMom needs to back off and let her kid figure it out. As a recent mechanical engineer grad I can say with some confidence that if your son can’t find an internship in the country there something seriously wrong. There is a major shortage of engineers and engineering interns. At Georgia Tech the pay for engineering students in the co-op program ranged from $15-25.

Anonmom

June 19th, 2012
7:57 pm

My mechanical engineer is employed with an internship for this summer (for pay) and he had one last summer (for pay) — his friends, on the other hand (save for one who has a very cool job out west) are delivering pizzas and working at pools. He had to send the resume, make the phone calls, follow up, ec. We helped open the door — he’s done everythng else. For the middle child, he actually had all the conversations on his own and learned, himself, that the friend’s mother at the big wall street firm had to pay him and didn’t have funds in the budget even though he wasn’t looking to be paid– I didn’t even know they were communicating. It’s the parents who “lay too low” who wind up with kids back on the sofa. There’s a line to be walked that is quite fine – you give your kids ‘roots and wings” and watch them grow and take off.

Anonmom

June 19th, 2012
7:59 pm

fyi — my junior’s school does not do “coops” — so he’ll graduate in 4 years but the ‘offerings” for internships and coops are diffeent than they are at Ga. Tech — it’s not the “same deal” — Ga. Tech wasn’t the college experience he was looking for even though it’s a great engineering education if you can survive it.

Tired

June 20th, 2012
7:41 pm

“Back to my oldest — rising Junior engineer at out-of-state univ. — I spent a very long time asking everyone I knew if they would take him on as an intern between his freshman and sophomore year…. I was having a very hard time giving him away (no comments please about helicoptering please — he was out of state and I was here). I finally find a contact who would take him on for one week …Next year (this summer) — round two — here we went again — no one around for unpaid internships but my husband found someone to take interview him for biotech…”

Anonmom, the liberal use of “we” and the abundant work you and your husband have done for your son – who surely has a computer and could track down these opportunities on his own even from farfar away – are high-waving red flags. I can’t imagine bringing anyone on whose Mommy or Daddy called me. Professionals hire and/or provide internships for self-starting, independent students who blaze their own trail.

Anonmom

June 21st, 2012
8:48 am

Contacts matter. “Friends and Family” has actually ruined DCSS. The concept has been around all time. Watching “60 Minutes” on Sunday, we (my sons, husband & I) were actually struck by how many “Friends and Family” were part of “Camelot” for JFK — there was a lovely segment featuring Maria Shriver on her dad — whose brother-in-law was JFK, who placed him in all sorts of positions, along with his brother RFK, and the senator, etc. Then there’s the Bush family. It crosses party lines. All we have done is to seek to use our “rolodex” to try and open doors to contacts for internships for our sons — in fields that arn’t ours — they get to do the rest of the work. We get calls from our friends to help others looking to get into our fields and we try to help on the “karma” front. Our contacts aren’t nearly as good as the ones mentioned earlier in this paragraph. We came to school in Atlanta from the northeast knowing no one, took out huge student loans and have worked our tails off to make a living and lives for ourselves. We have a great life and, although quite frustrated at what I perceive to be tremendous misuse and abuse of funds and corruption in DCSS, I love our lives here and want the boys to find great jobs and to have the sort of lives that their parents have found (love and a great family). The market is awful and most kids their age don’t have them… this is part of the news on a daily basis. So if my contacts or my husband’s contacts can open doors for them. So be it. Once they get through the door, they have to do the rest on their own. (I’ve read a “Wall Street Journal” article about parents actually attending interviews, making phone calls to schedule interviews, calling in sick for kids, calling professors, calling about grades to college and grad school professors, calling about status at work… now, that’s being a helicopter parent-when you don’t allow the kid to do anything for themselves and this was about professionals with graduate degrees).