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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Save the “Tiger?”

Earlier this spring, Charlie Sheen, the infamous former star of TV’s “Two and a Half Men,” tweeted that he was on the hunt for an intern with “Tiger’s blood,” and over 70,000 answered the call. One of them was CCNY Ad/PR major Rumi Syed, 21, and he’s outlasted tens of thousands of potential interns to handle Sheen’s social media needs for $10 an hour. As of this writing, he’s made it to round three.

Says MCA social media professor Alicia Evans about Syed: “Rumi was an exceptional student who was always prepared.  His writing skills are excellent and his ability to quickly grasp concepts and apply them to ‘real world’ applications are great. I think it is a marvelous opportunity and will certainly look good on his resume. Rumi will be an asset!”

Here, Reporting and Writing student Candice Green talks to Syed, who lives in Brooklyn, about why he wants to work for the ferocious star and what he plans to do if he gets the internship.

Q: Charlie Sheen is known for being angry, abusive and some might add, psychotic. What encouraged you to still want to intern for him?

Syed: To be honest, it is less about Charlie Sheen and more about crisis management. I feel like his PR team isn’t doing enough to prepare him for the media. Also, I’m hoping this is my one-way ticket to Hollywood; not acting but to become a publicist for other celebrities. I mean who wouldn’t hire me after working for Charlie Sheen?

Q: With all the damage Sheen has placed upon himself, do you honestly feel his PR team could have saved him?

Syed: Yes, his PR team failed to create a strategic crisis management campaign. For example, Sheen is involved in a lot of charity work. He donated to Haiti and now he is donating to the tsunami relief effort in Japan through his talk show tour. How many people know about that? Very few.

Q: What were you looking to get out of this internship?

Syed: Experience, just like every other internship. But I know this one will be different than any other internship. It will be intense, and I doubt I’m prepared enough to take on Charlie Sheen. But I’m pretty confident thanks to CCNY MCA professors, especially Professor [Lynne] Scott-Jackson. She actually helped me prepare for the third round of the internship.

Q: Were you a fan of his prior to his new behavior?

Syed: Definitely, “Platoon” is one of my favorite movies, and that’s way before “Two and a Half Men” came out. And, yes, “Two and a Half Men” just happens to be one of my favorite TV shows.

Q: If you were to meet him, what’s the first thing you would talk with him about?

Syed: Well first, I would get his autograph like a fan. Then maybe ask him what is it that he wants? Maybe he doesn’t want the good guy image but still wants a huge fan base.

Q: How does it feel to make it this far?

Syed: It feels great, and I’m really excited. I mean to be considered good enough out of 74,000 applicants is huge for me! I guess now I am pretty sure that I’m in the right major.

Q: How did your family and close friends feel about you applying for this internship and getting so far?

Syed: Friends were jealous but very supportive, and my mother called all of her co-workers–embarrassing!