Students meet potential employers at the Barnard College Career Fair on Sept. 7, 2012.
Monday morning’s alarm sets in order Diana Stockwell’s week to come: six credits worth of class, 25 hours of an internship and 25 hours of babysitting — a necessity to fund the hours spent interning for which Stockwell receives no salary nor stipend.
The college senior had turned down two paid internships for her present unpaid position at The Brookings Institution, a competitive slot chosen out of a pool of 300 candidates.
“It is so competitive that they can get away with not paying us,” Stockwell said. Regardless, having the company on her resume, she added, “guarantees a job once I graduate.”
In a workforce where competition for work is high, resumes loaded with experience pave the path for prospective career opportunities. Yet with college to fund and daily living expenses to support, not all can invest both time and savings into an unpaid commitment.
“A lot of people can’t work unpaid. It’s as simple as that,” said Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy. “The big issue about internships: Are they closing doors for people by being a virtual gateway into the workforce?”
In fields such as fashion and media, in which internships have significant sway in opening doors to entry-level jobs, the scope of employee diversity lessens — a reflection of a level of privilege among a select demographic, Perlin said.
“There’s a pay-to-play system to get into really prestigious and well-paid jobs. You have to be able to spend time working unpaid,” the author said. “It eliminates a lot of people and ultimately, is a real problem for our society.” As college students vie for work, they are keen to accept whichever offer could open opportunities, often an undeniable benefit for those who can afford it.
But in a recent lawsuit, former Harper’s Bazaar intern, Xuedan ‘Diana’ Wang, 28, sued the Hearst Corporation for violating Department of Labor rules by having her work up to 55 hours a week in an unpaid internship. The hours Wang put in for work that helped drive the daily function of Harper’s Bazaar did not lead to a job offer. The Department of Labor defines six standards to qualify an internship as unpaid, including requiring an internship serve solely as training benefit for the intern, in addition to an intern not replacing an employee’s paid position.
Wang’s call for compensation, Perlin said, is a brave one, putting her own career on the line as she fights for change in an industry that “has really gone too far in taking advantage of interns.”
There’s the argument of internship for credit: Should credit count as adequate substitution for salary? It’s colleges, not companies, that offer the credit.
“To make it sound like [companies] do is a problem,” Perlin said. Either way, though, students are earning credit toward their diplomas.
Should internships be required to pay interns? Should universities enforce stricter requirements as to what qualifies an internship for credit? And where should interns draw the line in accepting unpaid work, even when it could open career possibilities?
“Parents and teachers need to look at the ethics of internships being offered,” Perlin said. “The government needs to enforce the law. Companies need to not just use young people as the disposable workforce.
“And young people,” Perlin said, pausing so as to emphasize his point, “well, they need to stand up for what they’re doing.”
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