Unpaid internships should be learning experiences, not free labor

Alec Schrad, an unpaid intern at the Lincoln Children's Museum, cuts out play money for the play grocery store. Setting up the upstairs educational play equipment is one of her responsibilities in her internship.

Alec Schrad, an unpaid intern at the Lincoln Children’s Museum, cuts out play money for the play grocery store. Setting up the upstairs educational play equipment is one of her responsibilities in her internship.

Story, photos, video by Jordan Kranse, NewsNetNebraska

University of Nebraska-Lincoln student Alec Schrad doesn’t mind spending her afternoons creating lesson plans and setting up play areas in her internship at the Lincoln Children’s Museum. In fact, she enjoys it, and she does it for free.

“I went into it unpaid knowing it was a good opportunity in general,” Schrad, an elementary education major, said. “It’s a really good learning opportunity to grow as a person and as a professional.”

Schrad feels that she has gained valuable experience from her unpaid internship and loves doing the work., but this hasn’t been the experience for many students in unpaid internships. In 2011, several interns who worked on the set of “Black Swan” sued Fox Searchlight on the grounds that they should have been paid for the jobs they filled on set, such as production assistants, janitors and secretaries. The lawsuit sparked a string of lawsuits against other major companies.

Because of these lawsuits, unpaid internships have been given attention in the government and media, from columnists weighing in their opinions on the evils of unpaid internships to a bill signed in New York recently that will protect unpaid interns from sexual harassment. The attention has caused many people to question unpaid internships and who they really benefit.

The law

In order to offer an unpaid internship, The US Department of Labor requires that employers follow six guidelines. Paul Zech, a Minneapolis, Minn., labor attorney advises companies on creating internships. He said most companies with illegal unpaid internship violate one rule they are not aware of. Generally, the issue comes from determining who is benefiting more from the interns’ work; the intern or the company providing the internship.

guidelines1“I think it was just neglect, because it’s not that hard to make it legal,” Zech said. “It’s extremely unusual for an employer, in my experience, to create an unpaid internship that violates the law.”

Chris Timm, the assistant director of Career Services at UNL, said there are some cases where internships that violate labor laws go under the radar, and students might feel inclined to take them because they have no other options in that field.

“An NFL team that I know has unpaid interns and they might work 30 to 40 hours a week, but if you know you want to work in professional sports, that could be your ticket in,” Timm said. “Really, that organization ends up benefiting.”

As a nonprofit organization, the Lincoln Children’s Museum has a little bit of leeway with their internships. Regina Flowers, the Education Director of the Children’s Museum, said that they still stick strictly to the Labor Department’s guidelines to avoid any problems.

“All the work the interns do is helpful, but it is separate from the work of the staff,” she said. “It’s very well understood that interns are there to add to what we’re doing, but not to have the pressure or requirements needed for staff members.”

Interns’ work

According to Zech and Timm, unpaid internships are meant to serve as learning experiences, where the intern acts more as an observer learning how to do the job than actually performing it. Wade Hilligoss is a broadcasting grad student at UNL. He has held 10 internships, six that were unpaid. Hilligoss said the emphasis on learning experience doesn’t really reflect how his unpaid internships worked.

“I usually contributed to their bottom line whether I was unpaid or not,” he said. “I always benefited at least equally. I was never like slave labor.”

Lindsey Hoffman, another intern at the Lincoln Children’s Museum, said she and Schrad do a lot of work, but have never felt their roles have been exploited.

“This is give and take. They’re benefiting from us as much as we’re benefiting from them,” Hoffman said. “You’re doing something that has a purpose.”

In a legal unpaid internship, the intern may add value to the employer, but the employer may be initially worse off for letting them learn on the job because it takes away from the employees other job duties.

“They haven’t reduced their overhead costs and they’re not using someone for free,” Zech said. “The intern is benefiting because they are doing the work.”

Kevin Kuehl, an intern at 1011 News, actually directs the 4 p.m. newscast several days a week under the supervision of the newscast’s fulltime director, a paid employee of the TV station. While he

Unpaid intern Kevin Kuehl works numerous jobs at 1011 news, including running the teleprompter, setting up the studio and directing news shows under supervision. His role changes depending on the things he wants to learn and what his bosses are comfortable with him doing.

Unpaid intern Kevin Kuehl works numerous jobs at 1011 News, including running the teleprompter, setting up the studio and directing news shows under supervision. His role changes depending on the things he wants to learn and what his bosses are comfortable with him doing.

does contribute his work to the station, Kuehl said the TV station is using more of its resources to offer him that learning opportunity.

“I mean, directing the 4:oo (newscast), that’s purely a benefit for me, because I’m learning,” Kuehl said. “Someone else can be coding their other show or someone could be on break, so I mean that does benefit them in that way, but I’d say I benefit more out of learning how to direct actual live news.”

Zech said it’s not a problem if the employer does benefit from an intern’s work. In the case of Hilligoss’s internship though, Zech said even if an intern feels like they’re benefiting, an internship may still be unlawful.

“In every relationship, both parties will derive some benefit,” Zech said. “The problem is who derives the primary benefit.”

But there are cases where students do work in unpaid internships where they feel exploited or that they are doing too much work. Hilligoss said that he worked an unpaid internship with a sports website for several years that was run by just one person. He ended up going out and reporting games independently, which is more than an unpaid intern should be doing. However, he stayed with it because of the valuable experience.

“There are a lot of valuable experiences that companies can’t afford to give for pay,” he said.

Zech said that regardless of the fact that Hilligoss said that he feels like he still benefited from the internship, that doesn’t make it lawful.

“That’s not training work, that’s just doing the work,” Zech said. “Who’s primarily benefitting in this case?”

Getting a job

A study done in 2013 by the National Association of Colleges and Employers showed that about 63 percent of students that had paid internships received at least one job offer after earning their degree, while only 37 percent of students that had unpaid internships received an offer. Timm wasn’t sure that this study was completely accurate.

Information courtesy of InternBridge.

Information courtesy of InternBridge.

“I questioned a little bit of it, just because I’m not sure who they asked,” Timm said.

For example, Timm said that an engineer is more likely to get a paid internship and more likely to get a job, where a student in an industry that offers more unpaid internships and has fewer job openings, like entertainment, would obviously not get a job offer right away.

Zech wasn’t surprised by the study.

“Organizations that are committing to paying are being quite selective in who they choose,” Zech said. “Unpaid are less selective.”

Unpaid internships, however, can help open students up to even more career opportunities than they would have before. For example, Schrad’s experience at the Children’s Museum has helped her land a job there this summer.

Hilligoss, who has a job lined up for when he finishes his graduate degree at the end of the spring, never felt that he was discriminated against for having unpaid internships. However, he also chose not to specify which of his internships were paid or unpaid on his resume.

“They’re not looking, ‘Oh, did he get paid for this?’ They just want to see that you did it,” he said. “I don’t think it’s misleading to not tell them. It’s not something they ask.”

Fixing the problem with unpaid internships

For Hilligoss, the biggest problem with unpaid internships is that interns go through all the training, but then eventually start adding positive value once that training is over.

“You can’t just do your learning curve and quit,” he said. “I think once you hit that learning curve, you should get paid or only be there for like two months.”

Unfortunately, offering a half paid internship would be difficult for employers to enact. But they can make sure that they offer the most beneficial experience for students by following the guidelines for unpaid internships.

“The internship is all about benefiting the interns, so I’m definitely flexible with making that work,” Flowers said. “I work closely with the interns, making sure they get the learning opportunities they’re looking for.”

Even though many unpaid internships can be beneficial, Timm advises students to consider all their options when looking for internships.

“It doesn’t hurt to explore paid and unpaid internships,” she said. “I think they have to evaluate if that experience will help them in the long run.”

 Click on the video below to hear Kevin Kuehl talk about his unpaid internship. 


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