Former “Two and a Half Men” star Charlie Sheen stunned fans and the media after he tweeted a job posting in search of a “winning” social media intern to join his team for an eight-week summer internship.
The posting said the internship “will focus on executing a social media strategy that will build on the success Charlie Sheen has attained in setting the Guinness World Record for the fastest time to reach 1 million followers on Twitter.” It generated over 80,000 applicants from 181 countries.
But Sheen is not the only employer scouting interns who are willing to work for free.
The surplus of hungry college students feeling pressured to obtain internships has become the norm in this economic market. Between a third and a half of interns are left unpaid, according to the research firm Intern Bridge. But the business of hiring students for free has created another stake — the relationship between employers and universities that perpetuate this increasing trend of recruiting students for cheap labor. Colleges are now working with companies to ensure students are getting credit for their internships at school.
According to a 2010 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 21% of employers used unpaid interns. Internships are being added to the curriculum as some schools mandate that students secure internships as a requirement for graduating. As a result, universities have expanded their networks to start-up businesses and corporations, which use career centers and internship fairs as a popular way to recruit interns.
Ivan Xie, a senior at Stony Brook University, had an opportunity last summer to work as a marketing intern at Sleepys in Long Island. After a two-week process of interviews and filling out documents, Xie denied the position.
“I couldn’t afford to pay the school $900 worth of credits in addition to gas money,” he said.
The United States Department of Labor says an intern at a for-profit company may work without pay only when the program is similar to that offered in school.
Often, employers are choosing to ensure that students are getting credit in return for work.
Alfreda James, internship manager at the career center at Stony Brook University, works with students who receive credit at unpaid internships.
“Ultimately, it’s up to the individual’s dedication in finding a place that matches their background,” she said.
Mark Babbitt, CEO of YouTern, a site dedicated to matching young talent with leading organizations through internships, agrees with a work-for-credit policy.
“Interns should be able to take something out of the internship,” he said, “other than a longer list of contacts.”
Babbitt, who is an advocate of paid internships, supports organizations that offer mentor-based relations with their interns.
“Most companies are interested in the mentorship aspect of YouTern,” he said. “The first thing we notice is their desire to give back.”
Bleacher Report, an online sports publishing site that recruits students directly from the college, has an internship program that offers a mentorship to its interns. Max Tcheyan, the writing internship manager at Bleacher Report, said that it’s tough to criticize employers.
“It depends on the area of business the intern is in,” he said.
Tcheyan explained that many students apply to improve their writing skills and report on their favorite teams. “There’s a 3-to-1 editor-student ratio and interns are on deadline, so you’re receiving direct feedback,” he said.
It seems that virtual interns have become poster interns as companies rely more on interactive, online communities.
emcBlue.com, a division of Executive Music Company, is a social media blog that covers a plethora of topics, especially concerning the music business. Founder and editor-in-chief Nexus Sea built the blog to generate an online presence among music and fashion junkies. Though the gig is unpaid, the emcBlue internship program has 14 interns for the spring session, which has doubled its hits through social media site postings.
“Internships are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. A motivating factor for the rise in unpaid internships would be that companies are increasing the demand for labor, so there are more available opportunities for students,” Sea said.
Some criticize that virtual internships lack direct communication, but the price that comes with more traditional, credit-based internships may not be worth the money.
The Washington Center is the largest independent, academic internship program in the country. In the heart of Washington, D.C., it offers an array of internships in government, political science and journalism, and has close ties with governmental and business leaders, private organizations and hundreds of colleges and universities. The 1,600 interns it accepts each year must pay a combined cost of $9,310 in program and housing fees.
The average student entrenched in student loans and credit-card debt wouldn’t be able to afford a summer gig at the Washington Center or at any for-credit internship.
Kara Desanna, a freshman at Stony Brook University, applied for a summer internship at the New Museum after reading a job post on Internship.com. Despite the fact that the internship would more than likely meet her expectations, she withdrew her application.
“The daily commute from Long Island to the city would be costly,” she said. Desanna, who uses most of her work-study savings to cover tuition expenses, can’t afford an unpaid internship.
However, average unpaid internships require 15 hours per week so students can find other work to earn some cash.
Lauren Berger, CEO of Intern Queen, runs a popular internship-listing site that helps students apply and find internships. Berger, who tackled 15 unpaid internships as an undergrad, doesn’t like to use the term “work for free,” because students intern to learn, observe and perform entry-level tasks.
“You can work a job around an internship and schoolwork. Get organized, create a schedule that works and make it happen,” she said.
Whether an intern wants to move forward working for a company for free is his or her decision.
“Over the summer, my three-credit internship cost $800, and I thought it was ridiculous,” said Matthew Cohen, a senior at Stony Brook University who found his internship at the school’s career center.
“Learning real-world skills, in my opinion, is more valuable than money because the skills can be used forever,” he said.
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