| By Jennifer Wilmore |
Not too long ago, the term “internship” would most likely conjure up images of fetching coffee and pushing paper. These days, however, it seems that interns are used more like cheap or free substitutes for full-time staff than anything else.
“In any kind of market, when full-time jobs are down, internship opportunities go up,” said Meg Heenehan, Executive Director of the Office of Career Services. Considering the stubbornly high unemployment rate in the U.S., Heenahan indicated that people who are unable to find full-time jobs likely seek out internships as an alternative form of employment.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the prevalence of internships in the U.S. has grown quickly in recent years. More than 52 percent of 2011 college graduates reported completing internships, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), compared with just 17 percent of graduates in 1992.
The question is, do these internships actually help people move into paid jobs?
NACE suggests that whether or not an internship is paid might make a difference. Its most recent student survey found that paid interns outpaced unpaid interns both in finding a job upon graduation and in their starting salary amount, regardless of sector. The reason for the disparity, according to NACE, is that paid interns tended to be given a higher level of work responsibility than unpaid interns.
Barbara Magnoni, president of the international development consulting firm EA Consultants, says that whether or not an applicant’s internship was paid makes no difference to her in the hiring process. She does, however, agree that what is important is how substantive the intern’s work was. “No one just looks at the internship on paper,” Magnoni said. “They want to know what you know how to do and to what extent you can fit into a company culture.”
SIPA students indicate that even in unpaid internships, they were given the opportunity to make substantial work contributions. “I do think I did meaningful work,” said Alicia Evangelides, a first-year MIA student, about her previous unpaid position working with immigrant populations at the International Institute of Boston. “Sometimes I was a bit surprised at the responsibilities I was given.”
The internship process is a little messy in the U.S., where labor laws restrict what tasks unpaid interns are permitted to perform in the workplace. According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers must gain “no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.”
Students and educators alike have criticized this stipulation, because it is unclear what constitutes “immediate advantage.” But beyond that, students argue that this restriction contradicts the precise reason for obtaining an internship in the first place.
“Making photocopies and watching other people work isn’t the same thing as actually producing a result yourself,” said second-year MIA student Julia Ritz-Toffoli about the regulation. “I definitely did a lot of work that contributed to the organization,” she said, referring to her unpaid internship in Mali with a U.S.-based foundation, “but I also feel like that’s why I learned something.”
Critics, however, are beginning to describe this increasing reliance on unpaid interns in the work force as illegal and exploitative. One of the loudest critics is Ross Perlin, author of an exposé on internships in the U.S. called Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.
Perlin says in his book that despite modest efforts at reform, a work culture persists in the U.S. in which firms save $600 million a year by exploiting labor given freely or cheaply by eager interns.
Maria Clara Pardo, a first-year MPA student from Colombia, finds it unfair that U.S. employers might use interns to avoid paying qualified staff. She is also mindful, however, that international students face a unique challenge in the system.
“As a foreign student, you cannot have paid work,” said Pardo, referring to student visa work restrictions on students’ first year in the U.S., which she guesses most international students here face. Yet they still face pressures to get work experience in the U.S., and by taking an internship, she said, “some hope to raise their chances of getting a job after graduation that will help pay the bills of grad school.” As a result, many international students likely end up in unpaid internships at some point.
Meanwhile, Evangelides, like most first-year students, is in the midst of her search for a summer internship, and she says that although she would obviously prefer to be paid, she is willing to take another unpaid position. “I feel like you have to pay your dues,” she said, “and if you have to do an internship in order to get a job later, I don’t see the harm in it.”
Faced with graduation and the loan payments that will start rolling in, second-year students are not liable to be as optimistic about the prospect of taking another unpaid position.
But graduating students might find a ray of hope in the most recent employment statistics released by the Office of Career Services. According to data collected from the class of 2011, about 79 percent of the 533 graduates who responded to the survey had found some kind of employment within six months of graduation. Only three percent of these students listed their position as an internship, a little more than half of which were unpaid.
Jennifer Wilmore is a second-year Master of International Affairs student.