For many Cornellians, the coming of March means the search for summer internships is in full swing. Many of these internships provide valuable experience and are well-compensated. Often, however, students find themselves unpaid for their work.
Despite their questionable legality and varying educational value, unpaid internships have become the norm in many industries. Currently, Cornell lacks a central policy or standard for monitoring and evaluating the unpaid summer internships students complete. It is imperative that Cornell Career Services protects the student interest and ensures employers comply with Department of Labor standards. As it stands, the active encouragement of gaining experience at any cost is a tacit endorsement of the exploitation of student labor.
The importance of finding summer internships is reiterated many times on various Career Services websites. Students are left assuming summer internships are essential. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 2007 Vault Internship Survey noted that 74 percent of college graduates completed at least one internship. The pressure to land an internship is immense, and compensation becomes an afterthought or side benefit, rather than a right. Indeed, the 2011 Intern Bridge National Internship Salary Survey revealed that “nearly half of all reported internships are unpaid.”
There is no doubt that gaining workplace experience is important, and summer internships can be vital in securing permanent employment. While, according to the University’s Preliminary Postgraduate Report, 26.9 percent of the Class of 2011 reported finding employment through previous internships or jobs, many of these were paid or legitimate educational experiences. The benefits of unpaid internships are questionable at best. According to Economic Policy Institute Vice President Ross Eisenbrey, a 2011 study conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found unpaid internships yield no measurable benefits in terms of starting salary and full-time offer rates. The benefits for students completing paid internships, by contrast, were significant.
It’s no secret that, at for-profit private sector businesses, paid internships are largely far more prestigious than their unpaid counterparts. But the differences in the quality and outcome of internships based on compensation aren’t readily advertised by employers or Career Services offices. Rather, the College of Arts and Sciences Career Services Office actively encourages students to pursue unpaid internships, and suggests how they might fund summer experiences, including University grants. This raises the issue of whether unpaid internships preclude lower-income students from pursuing opportunities. Funds from the University are limited to a few grants and to students with work-study funding.
Recognizing many employers were taking advantage of student’s eagerness to work without pay, the Department of Labor adapted a Test for Unpaid Interns in 2010. Unpaid internships at for-profit, private sector employers must provide training similar to that given in an educational setting, be for the benefit of the intern, not displace regular employees, not immediately advantage the employer, not necessarily lead to permanent employment and clearly be unpaid. In this context, unpaid internships make sense. They should be more of an educational experience, whereas paid interns rightly perform actual work for companies.
How many unpaid summer internships actually meet the legal standard? Based on the experiences of my friends, I’d guess relatively few. Enforcement of the regulations is lax, because students willingly work for free and have little desire to report violating employers. That doesn’t make it right, especially if the actual benefits are much less than advertised.
The fact remains that many unpaid internships are bereft of any educational value or training. Instead, they serve to provide companies with free labor to perform mundane tasks. Differentiating legal, useful unpaid summer internships from their illegal, abusive counterparts should be a priority of our top-notch Career Services offices.
The awarding of academic credit would be an appropriate way to encourage the pursuit of more educational unpaid summer internships. At the moment, though, each undergraduate college has different policies regarding awarding credit. There is no uniform standard for determining which, if any, internships should qualify. The awarding of credit is especially important now, as many employers require interns to receive credit in lieu of pay to avoid legal scrutiny.
A recent policy adapted by the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management could serve as a model for the rest of the University, if implemented properly. The policy allows AEM majors to receive one pass/fail credit for unpaid internships, provided the internship is approved by the internship coordinator beforehand. It remains to be seen if this option is designed to encourage the pursuit of educational unpaid internships, or merely meet the needs of interns whose employers require the awarding of academic credit. AEM is also noteworthy for providing Internship Support Grants to “defray the costs of unpaid internships.”
Cornellians would certainly be more inclined to pursue legal unpaid internships if they received academic credit. In order for students to receive credit, University coordinators should evaluate each program to ensure it meets an educational standard, such as the Department of Labor test. Regardless of academic credit, Career Services should actively publicize the legal requirements for unpaid internships. Further, internship opportunities should only be listed on Cornell CareerNet if they are paid or comply with legal requirements. That way the University could ensure it is only facilitating internships that are compensated or educational in nature.
Perhaps more importantly, Cornellians should join with other students in more actively protecting our interests. There needs to be a cultural shift in how we view internships and work experience. We need not accept the status quo in the name of presumed future benefits. If we provide a valuable work product for a company, we have a right to be compensated. Internship experiences that are not compensated should be for our benefit, not that of a company. And doing menial tasks isn’t for our benefit or education. As long as students willingly do a company’s bidding for free, we will continue to be taken advantage of.
Unpaid summer internships that fail to meet the legal educational standard are not justified, no matter what the expectation of future gain may be. Simply put, taking advantage of free student labor is unacceptable. The status quo will not change until students and universities recognize and promote the difference between legitimate and exploitative unpaid summer internships. Far above Cayuga’s waters, students and Career Services officers should take the lead in re-defining a proper summer experience in the spirit of the University’s educational mission.
Jon Weinberg is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at email@example.com. In Focus appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.