The Internship Argument

In a recent New York Times op-ed article, Ross Perlin argued that colleges are uncritical and complicit in exploitation as they steer students toward unpaid internships. The author of the book “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy,” Perlin believes that interns are part of “a phenomenon that includes the growing numbers of temps, freelancers, adjuncts, self-employed entrepreneurs and other low-wage or precariously employed workers who live gig by gig. The academy should critique, not amplify, those trends.”

His sparked wide debate, including here at CCNY. My colleague Lynn Appelbaum, who helps place students at paid and unpaid internships, responded, noting that, “if all internships had to be paid, opportunities would decline, hurting the professional path for many, especially minorities.”

I agree with Professor Appelbaum. Though I wish every student received a paycheck, internships are still a valuable experience. Many years ago, my college internship at a large magazine publishing company, paved the way for own career in print and digital journalism.

CCNY journalism minors have interned at a number of large media outlets, including Good Morning America, ABC news.com, CNN, NY1, The NY Daily News, Fox News, BET, Transit News and Glamour Magazine. This summer, PBS, ABC News, CBS Sports, People Stylewatch, Latino USA-NPR, TV One, United Nations TV, In the Life (LGBT-TV) have all offered CCNY students internship positions. I know these experiences will change my students’ lives.

Below, my Reporting and Writing student, Patricia McGuire, joins this timely discussion:

Internships: Slave Labor or a Great Opportunity? by Patricia McGuire

“This job is absolutely a result of my internship,” says Bennecia Benjamin, a 2010 CCNY MCA graduate. After graduation, she interned at Group M, a New York-based marketing company; she’s recently been hired as an assistant print analyst.

“My internship helped me to gain focus and filled the gap from class to work environment,” Benjamin continues. “My good reviews during my internship, led to my recommendations and interviews for my current position.”

Many students many not experience Benjamin’s fairy tale ending by getting a job out of an internship. Professor Lynn Appelbaum, director of CCNY’s ad/PR program, estimates that about 10 percent of the internships in her department lead to jobs.

But even those students who don’t get hired, leave their internships with hands on-experience, potential networking and job opportunities. In today’s competitive market, employers consider internship experience a prerequisite for entry-level positions. They also serve as a vetting process and given the tough economic times, an endless supply of unpaid workers. For employers it’s a win/win situation.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers 2008 survey, 50 percent of graduating students have participated in internships, up from 17 percent in 1992. This growing popularity has made the line between a learning opportunity and free labor murky and students might not get what they are hoping for.

Unpaid internships, particularly in the summer, can be discriminatory, some experts believe. According to the study, “Not So Equal Protection” published by The Economic Policy Institute, “Low-income students are either denied the opportunity to participate in these valuable experiences, or must take on significant debt in order to receive the same advantages as their higher income peers.”

The study also discussed the lack of legal protection for interns. The set of laws that protect employees’ rights, the Fair Labor and Standards Act, don’t apply to them. For example, interns aren’t protected against discrimination and sexual harassment; an employer’s responsibility in cases of workers’ compensation is ambiguous. The study suggests that The Labor Board‘s Training and Employment Guidelines are difficult to enforce and outdated in the present economic environment.

To protect CCNY undergrads, department heads vet most of the internships before allowing students to participate. According to Appelbaum, “Well-established intern programs must have an on-site coordinator and basic criteria for intern’s involvement.” Appelbaum explains that internships during the year tend to be “less formal” than those during the summer and rarely include a stipend. Professors do their best to match students to appropriate internship but still disappointments occur.

This happened to Joselina Salazar, a CCNY senior. Her internship “wasn’t in an area I was interested in,” explains the MCA major. “What I learned was that I don’t want to do sales.” She will intern this summer at ABC news.

So, before committing to an internship this summer or next fall do your best to vet them even as they vet you.

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