CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Chia Xiong. She is Chia Xiong, not Siong.
Unfortunately for college students and recent graduates seeking networking or professional experience, unpaid internships are on the rise.
This trend places a financial burden on some students — and effectively closes certain fields to the less economically privileged.
“I’m from a low-income family,” said Chia Xiong ‘13. “I need a paid internship so I can come back to school in the fall without having to work two jobs at a time to pay off student [loans].”
And if that isn’t enough to worry about, recent findings have uncovered that many unpaid interns’ jobs violate minimum wage laws as stipulated by the Department of Labor.
“It appears that illegal internships are widespread, albeit concentrated in certain industries,” said Ross Perlin’05, who is currently writing a book on the rise of internships worldwide.
Legally, unpaid internships should focus mostly on training interns to enter the field, with a limited amount of grunt work. But in the current economic climate, unpaid internships seem to be cropping up as substitutes for paying jobs. This harms both the unpaid interns and paid professionals, Perlin said.
“Interns are now more likely to be doing core work at organizations, whether they’re getting paid or not, and it’s more likely that they’re replacing full-time employees in one way or another,” he said. “The nature of some internship roles has seen a subtle shift, as employers sense their advantage and feel they can ask interns to do more.”
This can lead to a more interesting and substantive internship experience. But Perlin said that’s simply an indication that interns taking on fuller roles should be compensated for their work.
“It’s bad news for anyone who cares about there being decent, well-paid jobs out there,” he said.
Some departments, such as English and communication, offer grants to students to help them afford to take unpaid or lower paying internships.
Alison Law ‘10 received a $1000 grant from the English department last year that allowed her to do an unpaid summer internship at Yale University Press.
“There aren’t too many paid summer programs in the publishing industry,” Law said. “I was kind of resigned to pay my own way for the summer until I found out about the grant.”
Law used the money to pay for part of her rent. She said her job involved a lot of what she called “typical intern work” — such as making copies — but it was still a valuable experience.
“I learned a lot about the publishing process which I couldn’t have gotten any other way,” she said, adding that internship experience is essentially a prerequisite for publishing jobs. “Even if it’s just making copies, they look for that on your resume.”
Stephanie Caro ‘11 is hoping to receive a grant this year — or snag a paid internship.
“I have looked into unpaid internships, but only ones that could be funded independently by Stanford through grants,” she said. “Living costs are a huge factor in determining which job I’m going to take and limit what I applied for this year. Unless I magically found somewhere to live that didn’t charge me anything, I would need to take a paying position.”
Lance Choy, director of the Career Development Center (CDC), said that Caro was not alone in her concerns.
“For some, financial obligations can be an important factor influencing their decisions about summer work experiences,” Choy said.
Unpaid internships are gaining prevalence at Stanford as well, the New York Times reported. Companies posted 643 unpaid internships on the CDC’s job board last year, compared with 174 just two years ago.
Perlin said that institutions like the CDC rarely do a thorough enough look into the jobs they post.
“Career centers by and large do a very poor job of screening the internships they advertise to students and of educating students about what’s legal and ethical in an internship position,” he said. “My impression is that many career centers are concerned about their relationships with employers and with getting as many students into as many internships as possible, as long as they’re not heinously exploitative.”
The CDC did not respond to e-mails about this concern.
With more and more companies offering only unpaid positions, many students face the choice of accepting a position that may further their career but is unpaid or working for a salary in a field they have absolutely no interest in.
“While I can explain to my parents that I’m taking an unpaid internship for the experience, they are still very [wary] of the notion of working for nothing,” said Kelly Kleespies’11. “My parents have highly discouraged me from taking something that is unpaid, but I would still rather take an unpaid internship in a field I’m interested in than a paid internship or job in a field I don’t want to enter after graduation.”
No matter the priorities, competition for internships, paid or unpaid, legal or illegal, is only intensifying. Nationwide, companies have started receiving hundreds more applications for only a few internship positions, and many of those vying for the position are well beyond their college years.
“Some of these applicants may have master’s degrees, significant work experience, and other very serious feathers in their caps,” Perlin said. “This extreme level of competition is only a few years old and may be an artifact of the recession, but it’s certainly making it harder for younger people with less experience to break in — even when they’re willing to work for free or for some very low stipend.”