Interning for experience – but no pay?

With all of the news about internships lately, my favorite recent posting is from McSweeney’s. Advertising a news production internship, the position is described as a “tremendous growth opportunity” that “may lead to full-time employment with possible entry-level pay or occasional freelance work.” The listing concludes:

This position requires someone who is completely dedicated. We are NOT looking for college students or people who are currently in a career “transition.”

This is a great opportunity to gain more experience. Only experienced candidates should apply.

We have received thousands of applications for this position. Due to the overwhelming interest we CANNOT guarantee a response to your inquiry.

We apologize in advance.

Like all parodies, this one works because it has a distinct ring of truth to it. As I type this from my office in Washington, DC, thousands of college students are flowing into the city to take part in the annual rite of passage that is the summer internship. Thousands more are still seeking opportunities, and employers are posting new opportunities every day.

Much of the press about internships this spring relates to the Department of Labor’s examination of whether unpaid internships violate minimum wage laws. The responses to the DOL have been swift and mostly predictable: students have blogged about their own experiences, college and university career centers have reminded us of internship guidelines they have in place, and a few individuals have ventured to say that DOL regulation would inhibit not only free markets, but also students’ free will.

Part of what is driving the DOL is concern that in a bad economy, for-profit companies looking to cut costs will displace paid employees in exchange for unpaid labor that comes from always-eager college students (and increasingly, recently laid-off workers) who are seeking to get the proverbial foot in the door. Of course, from the perspective of the intern, a frequent goal of an internship is eventual paid employment – if not in that particular organization, then in the field in general.

In bad economic times, however, uncertainty increases as to whether unpaid or low-pay labor opens any doors. Alongside uncertainty comes anxiety and pressure to find the “right” experience. Internships can begin to feel as scarce and competitive as full-time, permanent jobs, seeming to require significant experience, the ability to multi-task as never before, and, at least by McSweeney’s standards, “three years at an Arabic news channel and CDL Commercial truck license.”

What can colleges and universities do to help students navigate the complex and frequently pressure-filled terrain of internships?

As with any of the high-impact practices that AAC&U champions, the quality of the internship experience matters. George Kuh, in a recent AAC&U publication, notes that learning activities have impact on student engagement and learning when they are effortful, actively involve students in building knowledge and competencies, provide opportunities for students to interact over time with a diverse array of people, and allow them to put theory to practice in new settings and in novel situations.

Internships can also help students develop both personal and social responsibility, including work ethic, internal motivation for excellence, and a broader understanding of how one’s choice of careers fits into building a more just and sustainable world. Internships can help students learn about themselves as they test out different types of professional settings, and build commitment and professional identity. They can also provide students with opportunities to grapple with ethical questions and dilemmas as they navigate the shades of gray that exist in the world, beyond simple dichotomies of right and wrong and good and bad.

To fulfill this potential, everyone—faculty, career development professionals, and employers—must agree to set ambitious goals for student learning for internships. And they must communicate these goals to students. Students, with guidance and reflection, need to be able to craft particular goals for an internship experience that help them to develop important skills, practice taking responsibility, and make meaningful contributions to an organization.

The good news is that many groups on campus understand the potential value that internships offer to students as a learning experience as well as a “door-opener.” Recent AAC&U polls of chief academic officers and of employers show strong endorsement of the practice, as does recent data (pdf) from the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement, where 84 percent of faculty indicated it was “very important” or “important” that undergraduates do a practicum, internship, or other field experience.

With that, I would argue for a closer relationship between faculty, administrators, academic advisers, career development professionals and employers specifically to build internship programs that are robust, intentional about learning, and have ongoing relationships to organizations. We will be featuring examples of these kinds of programs in an upcoming issue of Peer Review that will feature internships as valuable experiential learning opportunities when done well, so stay tuned. No commercial truck license necessary.

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