Internships: For the Students or for the Employer?

by Jillian Torre

Anne Hathaway may have fetched countless cups of coffee and run numerous errands while interning for Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada,” but don’t always believe the big screen.

Movies and other forms of media have given internships intimidating reputations. However, these “Devil Wears Prada” internships are often a misconception. The original intention of internships, for the student to learn skills towards a desired field, is still prevalent in many places. The right internship can be a valuable learning experience that will give a student’s resume a competitive edge when applying for future positions. Although most are unpaid, interns walk out with a hands-on experience in their future field, skills not taught in the classroom, invaluable connections, and occasionally a job offer.

Unfortunately, there have been situations where that was not the case. While most internships will provide the intern with beneficial training, there have been cases where students have felt exploited by their employers. Several interns  feel that their time with their companies was spent performing menial tasks that others would have been paid for. Some  have gone so far as to file lawsuits.

Alex Footman, a Wesleyan graduate, filed a lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures for his work as a production intern on “Black Swan.” Footman described his duties on set as fetching coffee, lunches and janitorial tasks, none of which contributed to his film studies major. In an interview Footman said, “The only thing I learned on this internship was to be more picky in choosing employment.”

Others, similar to Footman, have filed lawsuits in hopes of changing the internship experience for others.

A six step criteria was established by the U.S. Department of Labor to determine whether an intern’s experience may be educational training with no pay or employment. To qualify as a viable unpaid internship, the training must be similar to one administered in a professional environment, the tasks are for the benefit of the intern, the intern can not be used to supplant a paid employee and must be under supervision, the employee cannot receive immediate advantage from the intern’s duties, the intern is not entitled to a job upon completion, and both parties understand the employer is not obligated to pay the intern.

The only problem with these regulations is monitoring. Those who are in favor of unpaid internships feel it is the intern’s responsibility to see that the company is not exploiting and abusing the unpaid intern criteria. However, a college intern with little experience in a professional environment may be too intimidated to stand up to a supervisor. Students also fear damaging their chances with other future employers.

Confusingly, some intern programs use running errands to determine an intern’s level of commitment and work ethics.

Not only are these unpaid internships occasionally taking advantage of free labor, but they are forming a class division in their industry. Those who succeed and those who do not succeed in experience required industries, such as business or communications, are being determined before they even receive their diplomas. College students are notorious for living off a dime and not many can afford to work a whole summer for no pay, in addition to paying for transportation and school credit in most cases. Only those with the financial help of their parents will be able to benefit from the internship experience.

The Career Center at Mount Saint Mary College screens potential employers by requiring a thorough job description before approving an internship for credit. Faculty from the student’s major, as well as the division chair sign-off on the internship determining it will be a worthwhile learning experience. If a job description comes across as insincere the Career Center will not pursue a potential internship with the employer.

Given the situation that a student is placed in when an internship  is not beneficial to them, the Career Center will first help the student speak to their employer or make a site visit. If the issue is still not rectified, the student has the opportunity to drop the internship. However, because the student has often already paid for the credits he or she will choose to stay with it or pick another internship.

Internship coordinator Kathleen O’Keefe says,  “The vast majority of students have very worthwhile and productive internships. The fact that an employer has to write a job description and that so many people are reviewing that description really helps this to happen.” Mrs. O’Keefe also mentions that she can only recall three cases in the past seven years where a student has left an internship. Requiring student’s feedback on their internships also helps to provide future interns with useful experiences.

As students, we are graduating into an economy with limited jobs available. In this competitive job market, internships are quickly becoming more of a requirement than a recommended learning experience. It is as rare that a college graduate will be hired right out of college with no prior experience as it is that a student who’s attendance is less than fifty percent will pass the class.