Trend shows experience trumps pay for student interns

Friday, May 14, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 8:06 a.m. CDT, Friday, May 14, 2010

COLUMBIA — MU senior Tommy Mueller has had an internship with Northwestern Mutual since November 2008. He receives course credit from MU for his work and is paid on commission. Although the company guarantees he'll make $1,000 a semester, Mueller, a finance major, has made $10,000 since August. His intern experience is preparing him for a career after college.

"I wanted to get a taste of the industry," Mueller said. "This is the best internship in regards to learning the lifestyle and duties of a financial adviser. They train us — they put us on the front lines."

Legal criteria

The U.S. Department of Labor has six criteria for employers that must be met for an unpaid internship to remain legal.

  1.       The training must be similar to that offered in a vocational school.
  2.       The training is for the benefit of the employee.
  3.       The intern does not displace regular employees and works under close  observation.
  4.       The employer derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, and, in some cases, their operation might actually be impeded.
  5.       The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the end of the internship.
  6.       The employer and the intern understand that the intern isn't entitled to wages for their time spent in training.

When he graduates this weekend, Mueller will be hired as a regular employee at the company.

These days, Mueller's situation appears to be more and more uncommon. According to Mimi Collins, the director of communications for the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a 2008 study from NACE found that 50 percent of graduating students have held internship positions and that experts estimate between one-fourth and one-half of those internships are unpaid.

Unpaid internships seem to be standard in some fields, and many students go along with it. Add economic uncertainty and a slew of financially troubled companies to millions of college students desperate to get ahead in a competitive job market, and you get a breeding ground for unpaid internships.

Experience matters

MU senior Lauren Ericson spent a summer interning with the Stray Dog Theatre in St. Louis. She worked as a stage manager, running rehearsals and supervising props.

"It was almost like a job, but it was unpaid," Ericson said. She said she appreciated the hands-on experience.

MU junior LaurieAnn Wojnowski has a video production internship with in New York City this summer. She won't be paid, but she will receive course credit. She will get housing as part of the Missouri School of Journalism's New York Program.

"The fact that I could be working for a media company is a dream job," Wojnowski said. "I am still in shock of what I'll be doing this summer." She described the opportunity as a good addition to her resume.

Michael Erwin, a senior manager in charge of corporate communications at, an online job recruitment agency, said the tendency for companies to hire unpaid interns has risen recently as companies seek to fill positions left vacant by staff laid off during the economic recession.

“There are so many students who are desperate to get experience, and companies see internships as a way of filling vacant posts,” Erwin said.

MU junior Timothy Collins said he sees his paid internship with Lockton, an insurance brokerage firm in Kansas City, as a way to boost his resume.

"It is very important to have at least one internship before you enter the job market," Collins said. "It shows not only that you put forth the effort of finding an internship, but that you have experience in the real world."

Dana Eagles, the newsroom internship coordinator at the Orlando Sentinel, said it's common to have unpaid interns looking for educational experiences and coursework credits. Internships often have long-term benefits to companies when used as a recruiting tool, Eagles said.

Collins said he sees a recruitment opportunity in his upcoming internship.

"This internship actually deals with a company that I would be more than happy to work for out of college," he said. "This is the type of career I will pursue."

He said the company usually hires several interns for jobs from the 20 they hire for the summer.

Economic roots

Like Erwin, Don Malson, director of career services at Columbia College, blames economic woes for unpaid internships because companies have been forced to make adjustments and financial cuts.

"If they could pay interns, they would like to," Malson said, but most simply can't.

Irvin Harrell, newsroom recruitment director at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said the company has a policy of paying all interns, but he sees where the unpaid trend is coming from.

At a time when many newsrooms have trimmed staff numbers to a bare minimum, Harrell said, the time spent training an intern is the biggest cost that news organizations incur in hiring one. This adds to other expenses such as mileage, telephone bills, equipment and accommodation costs that interns might rack up.

“But it’s a symbiotic relationship; we benefit from the interns’ services and the new perspectives that they bring to the newsroom,” Harrell said.

Because of this relationship, Malson called any internship a "win-win situation" for both the student and the employer. The employer benefits from the intern's work while the intern gets real-world experience. 

A legal issue

Although unpaid internships have gained popularity among companies, some argue that certain unpaid internships are illegal. According to an April 2 article in The New York Times, which set off a nationwide discussion about unpaid internships, officials in Oregon, California and other states have hit companies that don't pay their interns with minimum-wage violations.

Employers must comply with six guidelines to legally provide internships without pay, but many do not comply, the article reported. These criteria outline that unpaid internships must be for the benefit of the intern and that no work can directly benefit the employer, and this seems to have become a rarity.

"I'm pretty sure everything we work on is something they're working on to be published," Wojnowski said of her upcoming internship with MTV. "I don't think there will be mock assignments."

Internships that cost

While student resumes typically benefit from internships, some companies seem to take this advantage to the extreme. Not only are they not paying their interns, but interns are paying them to participate.

Heidi Schmidt, an MU graduate student, interned as a writer's assistant with the O'Neill National Playwrights Conference in the summer of 2000. She called it a fantastic opportunity despite not being paid.

Now, the conference is asking interns to pay them in exchange for the opportunity. A fee of $2,700 covers housing and meals, according to the conference's website. Schmidt is concerned these interns are being "taken advantage of."

Vogue Magazine auctioned off an intern position on earlier this year. The weeklong position went for $42,500 and includes a trip to New York Fashion Week. Although the money goes to charity, the opportunity is rather pricey as a resume booster. Vogue offers other internships through an application process, as well.

Some students or families might have the financial means to take or buy such big-ticket positions for no pay, and others can't accept an opportunity that produces no income.

During Schmidt's five-week internship with O'Neill, she was unable to hold a job, creating a situation she described as "a big challenge." If the internship were offered again, "I would not financially be able to do it," she said.

During some unpaid internships, students have to look elsewhere to cover living expenses. Harrell said the scarcity of opportunities for paid internships has forced unpaid interns to look for side jobs to meet their basic expenses, but he argues that such an arrangement wears out interns who have little spare time.

Some private schools are combating this problem with compensation for their students. Connecticut College offers students $3,000 the summer between their junior and senior year for internships. Amy Martin, manager of media relations, said 74 percent of the college's junior class takes advantage of the program.

"We started the program because we think it's all important for all students to do an internship," Martin said. "Students are able to do an internship whether or not they're unpaid. They can also do an internship at any organization that doesn't have the funding to pay the student. It really does level the playing field because students who couldn't necessarily afford to take an internship can take one with any organization that they want."

Other colleges offer students the same boost. Oberlin College in Ohio gives stipends of $250 to $3,500 to Oberlin students who take unpaid internships and do projects with organizations that can't provide financial support. Smith College in Northampton, Mass., has a program that provides each Smith sophomore or junior a $2,000 stipend to use for an internship that helps further their career goals.

Promises of pay

But as Mueller's situation shows, paid internships aren't entirely a thing of the past.

Although Erwin of said there is no clear pattern to show which industries are more likely to offer unpaid versus paid internships, some fields seem to pay more consistently.

Sarah Danner, an MU senior and engineering major, interned with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in St. Louis during the summer of 2009 and was paid for her work.

"I honestly don't know of many engineering internships that are not paid. It doesn't seem to be the trend," Danner said.

Ericson said paid or unpaid trends vary in theater internships but stressed that experience trumps pay.

"Either one is valuable to have," she said. "It depends on the experience you gain from it — you have to do your own research."

Missourian reporters April Choi, Lauren Rauth, Manasa Vedula and Gikunju Washington contributed to this article.

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todd james July 6, 2010 | 3:14 p.m.

Great post, I really appreciate the insight and the research done on current internship trends including both paid and non-paid jobs. In a sluggish economy it is easy to see why unpaid internships are becoming popular, however, experience is worth having in many ways versus getting paid. Due to increased competition, <a href="">intern jobs</a> are seen as an extremely effective and competitive strategy for students looking to gain experience.

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