The future of unpaid internships
By KAYLA CALHOUN, ASHLEY ILLENYE & JENN RAGUSA
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writers
It’s almost 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon. Katharine Wise, a 21-year-old senior at Towson University, starts to get ready for her long night ahead. After quickly grabbing rice cakes smeared with peanut butter and putting on her work uniform, khaki pants and an orange polo shirt, she is off to Oriole Park at Camden Yards to start her game day shift.
She runs visitor tours, meets sponsors, sets up tabling events, takes photographs and runs back and forth to the team’s corporate offices to handle seat changes during the game. Wise does these duties five days a week when the Baltimore Orioles are at home. She typically stays until the games end, which can be 11 p.m. or later. On non-game days, she inputs data, files invoices and logs radio advertisements.
Is this position a full-time or part-time job? No, it’s for an internship for which she gets college credit but does not get paid.
Wise, a mass communication major on the advertising and public relations track, wanted experience in her field. So she took the unpaid corporate marketing internship with the Orioles last fall.
“I wanted to intern with a business that was well known,” Wise said. “It looks good on a resumé and I was interested in sports marketing, something that was different everyday.”
It did not matter how many game days Wise worked throughout the week. Towson’s mass communication department only gave her college credits for one of those days, she said.
“Obviously I was going to do my best, but I would slack off a little bit more just because it wasn’t counting toward anything,” Wise said.
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employees, the number of available internship positions rose by 1.7 percent in 2018, with the number expected to increase each year. Wise is one of many college students who accept unpaid internships, often requiring full- or near-full time work, to get experience in their field. As the job market gets increasingly competitive, college students are trying to gain an advantage however they can. One such tactic is working without pay.
But critics say this model takes advantage of students and allows employers to get free labor that otherwise would be done by paid employees. And, some argue, only those with financial means are able to afford unpaid internships.
Opportunities and costs
[pullquote]“Many times I don’t apply to internships because the cost is not realistic…companies need to think about how unfair it is to expect people to be able to afford these in college.” — Ally Esposito, college student[/pullquote]
Ally Esposito, 21, is a junior at Temple University with a major in sports management. She has had five internships in the last three years; two of these positions were unpaid.
“I learned a lot from these internships but the biggest takeaway was learning how to work in fast-paced environments and not fall behind with your work,” Esposito said.
One of Esposito’s unpaid internships was with the United States Golf Association for an eight-week period. Esposito assisted with setup for onsite facilities such as corporate hospitality, vendor and fox sports compounds. She also worked with staff on inventory and helped plan events.
Esposito said some unpaid internships were out of reach because of the costs she would incur.
“Many times I don’t apply to internships because the cost is not realistic,” she said. “I think that companies need to think about how unfair it is to expect people to be able to afford these in college.”
Jon Jacobs, who has more than a decade of professional experience in journalism and television production, worked as an unpaid intern from the time he was an undergraduate at Cornell University until after graduate school at the University of Colorado.
“Most entry-level jobs that I have experienced personally, they don’t require that much experience, especially in my field,” Jacobs said “A lot of the time you can do those jobs with a high school degree.”
Jacobs said looking back, it was unfair to not be paid. At the time, Jacobs believed that it wasn’t unfair because he chose such a competitive industry to work in and that it was just what needed to be done to start his career.
“The experiences were extremely worthwhile because to a large degree they really were entry-level positions as far as the work I was doing,” Jacobs said. “They also gave me a sense of what these fields were in real life, day-to-day.”
Margot Susca, a journalism professor at American University, had two internships while in college that helped establish her career after school. However, Susca has been vocal about her dislike of unpaid internships due to the socioeconomic gap it creates, and usually does not recommend them to her students.
I grew up middle class, got incredible education @UMassJournalism then went to @columbiajourn. Now teach at one of country’s best private schools #AUJournalism @AU_SOC. Scholarships help many here. You want to fix class & racial diversity in journalism? End unpaid internships.
— Margot Susca, Ph.D. (@MargotSusca) March 8, 2019
Susca said that companies need to do more to cultivate talent, and they need to pay college students to do the work.
“What research says is that you are more likely to be white and upper class to afford [unpaid internships],” Susca said. “You are essentially leaving a whole class of people out of the opportunity to do those fancy internships,” Susca said.
The impact of unpaid internships
According to a report from the National Association of Colleges and Employees, a non-profit organization that aides college students with internships during college and helps them join the workforce, unpaid internships are not as valuable to students as paid ones.
Of graduating seniors in 2014, 61 percent reported having internships. Of those, 46 percent were unpaid and 42 percent were paid. The reported starting salaries were higher for graduated college students with paid internships than those who had unpaid internships, who received a similar starting salary as post-grads who did not have any internship experience.
According to the NACE study, students’ chance of landing a full-time job after an internship increases significantly when working as an paid intern. In a corporate environment, three-quarters of paid interns receive full-time job offers. Unpaid interns in the same sphere only receive offers 40 percent of the time.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standard Act provides guidance on whether a company has to pay its interns.
Kelsey Talley, a second-semester senior at the University of Maryland who is an international business and marketing double major, said paid internships, though not easy to come by, lead to more satisfying work.
Talley applied for a paid internship at a digital marketing agency, WebMechanix, in Columbia, Maryland, last summer, but did not land the job due to lack of experience. To gain experience, she took two unpaid internships before finally getting a paid internship at Webmechanix in winter 2019.
“It was like I had to tough out unpaid busy work for two years to finally have enough experience get a paid internship,” Talley said.
Talley said there are two clear differences she’s identified between her paid and unpaid internships.
“The first is the motivation to come in and do my best,” she said. “When I’m paid, I’m not worrying about another part-time job I have to pick up or if I’m doing all this work just for a resume builder.
“The second is the expectation of the work that is given to me. Because I’m being paid, WebMechanix (the company she is a paid intern for) doesn’t want to just give me busy work. They want me to become a wealth of knowledge succeed as an individual before I succeed as part of a team.”
Investing in the future
WebMechanix employs 55 digital marketers, web designers and creative professionals. The company long ago decided it wanted to pay interns as a way of investing in potential future employees.
“We like to say that three months of working here is like nine months anywhere else,” said Anthony Snively, operations strategist and advisor of the internship program at WebMechanix. “We see our internships essentially as paid training to prepare them to make an immediate impact on our staff if they end up coming on full-time.”
More than half of the company’s employees began as interns. WebMechanix’s internship program is internally known as the “academy.” The goal is not only to teach interns about the field if they are given the opportunity to start as a full-time employee after graduation, but ensure that wherever they go, they are able to use their knowledge in many different applicable fields.
Although the company has always paid its interns, it has only taken between two to four interns per internship semester to keep spending at a minimum. WebMechanix typically has a summer, fall and winter internship class. The Maryland Technology Internship Program (MTIP), a program funded by the state of Maryland that offers reimbursement to businesses in the technology industry to promote paying and hiring more interns, will allow the company to take on more interns.
WebMechanix operations director Brian Thackston said that MTIP may also allow the company to increase the pay given to interns in the future.
“The application volume to our internship program has been increasing dramatically over the last few years,” Thackston said “We’ve found ourselves having to turn away candidates we saw a lot of potential in. We were looking for ways to bring more interns in. This gave us the boost we needed to bring in double our usual staffing.”
By meeting the qualifications, the company receiving funding can be reimbursed up to 50 percent of an intern’s wages and $3,000 per intern annually. The interns must have a direct supervisor/mentor, complete “substantial work,” be provided a physical workspace and work 120 hours over their internship period.
The program defines technology-based internships, with a technology-based company being a “a commercial or an industrial enterprise engaged in the application of scientific knowledge to practical purposes in a particular field.” Government agencies, nonprofits and private and public colleges are not eligible to qualify for this program.
With the benefits Webmechanix received from the MTIP funding, it was able to take seven interns during the most recent winter internship program. From the most recent round of interns, three have accepted to full-time strategist positions with the company post-college graduation.
Universities play a key role
Increasingly, colleges are trying to help students land internships — and in some rare cases pay them when their internships won’t.
The Towson University Career Center helps students build their resumés, get interview practice and connect with businesses. Along with in-person help, students can look to Handshake, an online career resource, much like LinkedIn, to find companies that are looking to hire interns.
Towson students have the option to either get an internship that offers credit hours through the university, or they can find an internship outside of the university. The benefit of a student finding an internship through a university is that the programs are often more structured, with students gaining “mid- and final evaluations, required reflection, more structured mentorship, and university oversight to ensure a quality experience,” according to Lorie Logan-Bennett, director of Towson’s Career Center.
Not only will the student get hands-on experience in their chosen field, they might also have a greater chance of gaining a full-time position. An example of an internship program that students can participate in for credit hours is the program at Arrow Child and Family Ministries.
Arrow Child and Family Ministries is a social work organization intent on providing “child welfare and education services for abused and neglected children and families in crisis” and has an established internship program for students majoring in social work. Because the organization is contracted to universities, it is not legally allowed to pay its interns, however, students can earn credit towards graduation and are reimbursed based on mileage.
Although the internship is unpaid, interns have the opportunity to earn a full-time position, with about 75 percent of them gaining a job with the company, according to Crystal Ludtke, Arrow Child and Family Ministries program director.
Even with credited unpaid internship opportunities, however, many low-income students are unable to afford both tuition and holding down an internship.
As a way to remedy this, many colleges, such as Cornell University, Georgia Institute of Technology and Purdue University, have implemented the “Cooperative education program.” According to a 2015 article From US News & World Report, students are able to work full-time for three to 12 months, gaining practical experience by working in a field-related internship. Along with gaining real world experience, the students are given an hourly wage for their work.
Although Towson does not have these types of programs, the Career Center is working towards finding ways to help students better afford unpaid internships through fundraising, according to Logan-Bennett.