Unpaid internships: exploitative, career building or both?
Published: Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 08:09
Glamour Magazine, the New England Wildlife Center, Google, J.P. Morgan Chase, NASA, the AARP — these are only a handful of the prestigious companies and nonprofits where Tufts students have held internships, both paid and unpaid.
According to Jean Papalia, director of the Tufts Career Center, 85 percent of the class of 2013 reported having at least one internship throughout their undergraduate career, and 62 percent have had at least two.
The numbers are clear — students at Tufts who have held internships are in the majority. The question remains as to who benefits the most. Is it the student gaining professional experience and contacts? Or is it the employer gaining student labor for which it does not have to pay?
This June, a federal judge in New York ruled that unpaid interns on the sets of “Black Swan” and “(500) Days of Summer” should have received at least minimum wage for their work. The judge further allowed the interns to file a class-action lawsuit against Fox Entertainment Group, according to a New York Times article published in July. Since then, according to information published by ProPublica, the question of exploitation and illegality in regards to unpaid internships has appeared in 21 new lawsuits.
According to senior Kaveh Veyssi, unpaid internships are particularly important in breaking into the film industry. Veyssi, who aspires to become a film producer, had an unpaid internship this summer at FilmNation Entertainment and the previous summer at International Creative Management (ICM), a talent agency, for which he received academic credit. He spoke highly of his experience working as an alternative television intern at ICM.
“When I first found out I was going to be working under an assistant, I was like, ‘Oh man, this is kind of a cruddy job, it’s going to be a lot of grunt work,’ which it was,” Veyssi said. “But it was a phenomenal experience. I got so much experience on the inside that I wouldn’t have gotten working for pay somewhere else.”
At FilmNation, Veyssi’s internship involved reading scripts, which he acknowledged is commonly a paid job. He said, however, that his personal experience was different than that of the interns suing Fox Searchlight.
“The interns on ‘Black Swan’ felt they were being mistreated because they were doing what full-time employees do and not getting paid at all. I felt no such thing,” he said. “I felt that every single moment in my internship was well spent, and I didn’t feel taken advantage of.”
Many others at Tufts echo Veyssi’s assertion that an unpaid internship provides positive, hands-on learning experience. Leslie Goldberg’s role as internship administrator for the Communications and Media Studies (CMS) department is to match students looking for internships in media fields with companies that seek interns, as well as to oversee the course students enroll in to receive academic credit along with their unpaid internship.
“Most of the time, in my experience, the interns get good work experience because they get to shadow people, they get to sit in on meetings, they often get assignments that they’re in charge of where they can really take the initiative and learn from [them],” Goldberg said. “They’re doing work for the company but they’re also getting a lot of mentoring and learning.”
While these interns receive academic credit, Goldberg also recognized the exploitative nature of the unpaid internship.
“Is it work that an employee might be doing? Yes. And in that sense, it’s a good deal for the company because they [don’t have] to pay an employee, they’re getting free labor,” she said.
Tufts offers other forms of compensation for unpaid internships in addition to academic credit. Each summer, the Career Center offers up to 45 internship grants of $3,500 to students who have full-time, unpaid internships but who would otherwise be unable to accept the position, Papalia told the Daily in an e-mail.
Realistic financial constraints are another unfair aspect of the unpaid internship. Having to find a paying job may prevent some students from gaining the same experiences, according to senior Amelia Haney. Haney interned two summers ago at the International Institute of New England, a nonprofit that assists newly-arrived immigrants and refugees in finding employment in Boston.
“I was really lucky to have parents who could help me out through that summer, but I know that a lot of people don’t have that,” she said. “I think it can be really limiting in the opportunities people can pursue. It’s an unequal system.”
Haney interned 30 hours a week without pay, doing the exact same work as employees, she said. Because it was a nonprofit with limited resources, all the interns were unpaid.
“Our boss would always tell all the interns, ‘What you do is invaluable for the organization and we couldn’t function without you.’ But there’s no return in a lot of ways, except for the experience, which is important,” she said.
Despite this, Haney said that the internship overall was rewarding. She worked directly with clients, and the experience she gained reinforced her career goal of working in the nonprofit sector. Papalia has found that students typically agree.