Unpacking unpaid internships

by Mark Gartsbeyn / Beacon Staff • January 28, 2016

Oh, the beginning of a new semester. It means new classes, new orgs—and for many, a new unpaid internship. No matter their major, these explorers of the corporate world discover a kingdom of copies and coffees, a realm of resumes and references.

When it comes to exploring this new world, Emerson students are the pioneers. The Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, or SNAAP, is an annual online survey that analyzes the impact of arts-school education. When Emerson’s School of the Arts participated in the 2013 “SnaapShot,” it found that 74 percent of recent grads had at least one unpaid internship—over twice the amount as the average SNAAP institution. Only 33 percent held a paid internship, which is around the regular rate.

The trend makes sense, because it’s a matter of what’s available. LionHire, which connects students to potential jobs, has 275 positions labeled as internships as of last Sunday. Of those, just under a third—90 in total—pay. Most of those remaining jobs don’t compensate, but a few provide small weekly or monthly stipends, typically to help cover housing, transportation, and food.

Ultimately, Lions have a reputation for energy and ambition. According to SNAAP, the top three stated reasons for pursuing internships are to gain hands on experience, to become better prepared for employment, and to learn new skills—even if that means working for free.

Working within the lines

Since the beginning of this decade, there’s been mounting suspicion about the usefulness of unpaid internships. According to a 2013 article from The Atlantic, about 63 percent of college grads with a paid internship on their resume were offered jobs upon graduation. For former uncompensated interns, 37 percent got the same deal—only two percentage points higher than those who never interned at all. The data was based on a survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Then there’s the publicity problem. In the last few years, a wave of former unpaid interns have sued media corporations like Fox Searchlight Pictures, Condé Nast, Viacom, NBCUniversal, and Warner Music Group—potential future employers of our school’s writers, actors, and filmmakers. The suits asserted that these companies broke federal and state wage laws with their unpaid internships. In these cases, the courts tend to favor the workers.

Carol Spector, the director of career services at Emerson, said she thinks that every company should pay their interns.

“I wish I had a megaphone so I could tell every employer,” Spector said. “We still list unpaid internships, and I know students can get good experience from [them]. But I want them to go in with an educated choice.”

The lawsuits drew from the Fair Labor Standards Act, or the FLSA, which is known for dictating the standard minimum wage and overtime provisions. It also establishes guidelines for for-profit companies with unpaid internship programs. Primarily, they should benefit the intern, and if the company derives an “immediate advantage” from their work, they should be paid.

“The employer might benefit by having an [unpaid] intern, but that shouldn’t be the reason to get an intern,” Spector said. “If they need help, then they should hire someone. Even if it’s part-time.”

Among other criteria, the FLSA states that the position must be similar to training in an educational environment, even if it provides useful work for a company. Spector said she agreed, and recommended that no more than 25 percent of the intern’s duties involve clerical work. This includes administrative support duties like typing, filing, and photocopying—or worse, cleaning and coffee. She said that an unpaid internship is only worthwhile if a student can get a good learning experience out of it.

“Will they be able to do some quality work, maybe do something that will give them a sample of their work?” Spector said. “Can they write something, can they publish something, can they have something for their portfolio?”

From the intern’s desk

If Emerson students are internship pioneers, then Travis Amiel might be Magellan. The sophomore performing arts major has had three underpaid summer internships; one at York Theatre, one with radio host and Broadway fanatic Seth Rudetsky, and one at VH Theatrical Development Foundation, or VH.

Both of the theater companies are non-profit; in terms of the FLSA guidelines, the U.S. Department of Labor makes exceptions “for religious, charitable, civic, or humanitarian purposes to non-profit organizations.” Amiel said he found all of his internships extremely worthwhile.

“Doing an internship is part of my education,” Amiel said. “There’s an opportunity cost to it. I could be working minimum wage, or making $20 an hour babysitting. But I’m making this choice to earn less money because I want this on my resume.”

Amiel said that unpaid internships may not be possible for all students.

“There’s a clear economic barrier for a lot of people,” Amiel said. “I’m only able to [have unpaid internships] over the summer because I stay with my mom, and I can commute into the city. If I had a huge amount of student loans, then it wouldn’t make sense to do this.”

Even though VH is a nonprofit with a small staff and budget, Amiel said because the company had a commitment to pay all its workers something, they still gave him a $100 stipend a week.

“When I hear about unpaid interns in the movie industry, that doesn’t make any sense, because they’re working on things that make a lot of money,” Amiel said. “But with [nonprofits, you're] working for an organization which might close next year, or is just breaking even…if someone is pocketing money off of my work, I should get at least minimum wage.”

David McLaughlin, a junior visual and media arts major, worked as a pledge production intern at WGBH last semester. WGBH runs Boston's affiliate PBS and NPR stations and is also a nonprofit. McLaughlin said he mostly worked in preproduction, editing scripts and assembling packages. He also occasionally did coffee runs and inventory work. McLaughlin said that he found the internship worthwhile.

“Everything in their studios is much bigger than what they have at Emerson,” McLaughlin said. “You see it on a much grander scale.”

McLaughlin said he felt that WGBH would be more inclined to hire him after graduation over someone who hadn’t worked there. He also said that larger television networks, which are more likely to pay their interns, usually require a lot of past work.

“I just applied to a couple at NBC, and those ones required two other internships [on your resume],” McLaughlin said.

But like Amiel, McLaughlin acknowledged the opportunity cost of working for free.

“That was 15 hours of my week that I could’ve spent working and making money,” McLaughlin said. “Not having as much debt... I have like a $38,000 loan to come [to Emerson].”

And while he benefited from his first unpaid internship, he said he wouldn’t want to do another one.

“I feel like if I did it once, I’d want to step forward, whereas if I got another unpaid one, it’s more of a lateral move,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said that he wants experience any way he could get it.

“If they offered me money, I would’ve accepted that without hesitation,” McLaughlin said. “But they get a lot of interns, and I wonder, if they did pay their interns, would they have fewer spots for them all?”