April 26, 2010

As Regulators Worry About Abuses of Unpaid Internships, Cornell Looks for Solutions

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As summer draws nearer, Cornell students are going on their last round of interviews and receiving e-mail acceptances for internships throughout the country. But with scarce job openings, the number of unpaid internships for young people has increased, according to a recent New York Times article. Cornell Career Service counselors say they are becoming increasingly concerned about the trend toward unpaid internships.

In 2008, the National Association of Colleges and Employers recorded that 50 percent of graduating students held internships — a dramatic increase from the 17 percent in 1992.

These internships, however, may not all abide by the legal criteria set for unpaid internships. Federal and state regulators worry that employers are illegally using unpaid interns as free labor.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division recently released a set of six criteria clarifying the role of interns in the workplace. The criteria state that the training should be similar to that of a vocational or academic institution, that the intern does not displace regular paid workers, that the employer “derives no immediate advantage” from the intern and, most importantly, that the training “is for the benefit of the trainees,” according to the department’s website.

Although violations are rampant, regulators have difficulty enforcing these legal standards. Often, interns are afraid to file complaints for fear of becoming known as troublemakers in their field.

Cornell Career Service counselors have become increasingly concerned about the legalities of unpaid internships, according to Christa Downey, director of career services for the School of Arts and Sciences, especially in light of the recent articles in The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education that exposed some of the practices of companies that employ unpaid interns.

“The general consensus is that students should be paid for their work. The general feeling in career services is that we want to do the best we can to support our students,” Downey said.

Different schools at the University, however, have had quite different experiences dealing with the issue.

The College of Engineering, for example, rarely sees unpaid interns, as engineering students are often more able to secure paid internships then humanities majors, according to Mark Savage, the director of engineering co-op and career services.

“[Unpaid internships] have been a minimal issue for engineering students,” he said. He added that even small start-up firms that do not offer daily or weekly salaries will often offer students some sort of stipend for living expenses.

Other schools at the University have not had as easy a time securing their students paid internships.

Downey, who recently switched from director of Engineering Career Services to Director of Arts and Sciences Career Services said that while employers may be more likely to pay for the tangible skills that an engineering student provides, they may not be as willing to offer a humanities major a paid internship.

Regardless of whether or not students are paid, Downey still believes that it is important for them to gain experience in their field, even in spite of the recent controversy. According to Downey, 75 percent of employers expect students to have internships and experience in their field before they are offered jobs after graduation.

“You need to evaluate the opportunity in terms of long-term pay-off. [Look at it] as an investment for your future, for what you might learn,” Downey said, “That being said, some students simply cannot afford to go the summer without being paid, especially when she or he is living away [from their hometown.]”

For this reason, she has begun gathering resources to fund students who take unpaid internships.

On the Arts and Sciences career website, there is a link to “Funding Summer Experiences” that details how students can receive funding.  There are also several internship opportunities that Cornell offers to students, such as the Develop Your Own Internship program.

“Providing funding for unpaid internships is the next form of scholarship. We provide great financial aid at Cornell, and an extension of that is funding a student through the summer,” Downey said.

Career Services hopes to provide funding for students who take unpaid internships for non-profit organizations and do volunteer work nationally or abroad. For students more inclined toward the for-profit sector, Downey suggests applying for the Hatfield Award, which grants money to students interested in ethics in business.

Downey did acknowledge, however, that it might not be the most opportune time –– given the economic climate and the University’s cost-cutting measures –– to be searching for funding from the University.

“I have been gathering data to find out who we can appeal to in the University. But of course, I must say, the University is cutting, and this might be bad time to be looking for funding,” Downey said.

Downey still encouraged students to take on unpaid internships even if they were unable to acquire funding from the University. She said that even internships that provide 20 hours of work a week are beneficial for students careers in the long-run, and they still can have time to work at a paid job elsewhere.

Original Author: Margo Cohen Ristorucci