Mason students weigh the costs and benefits of unpaid internships

After a federal judge ruled an unpaid internship program to be violating the Fair Labor Standards Act, many students have debated the merits of unpaid internships (photo courtesy of RJ Schmidt/Flickr).
After a federal judge ruled an unpaid internship program to be violating the Fair Labor Standards Act, many students have debated the merits of unpaid internships (photo courtesy of RJ Schmidt/Flickr).

The days of hurried coffee runs and phone answering may be coming to an end for interns across America.

This past June, a federal district court judge in the southern district of New York handed down a decision for a case against Fox Searchlight Productions, brought on by two production interns for the film “Black Swan.” Judge William Pauley ruled that the interns were legitimate employees of the company and deserved compensation for their work. He declared that their work was not educational enough and did not meet the requirements of an unpaid internship set forth by The Fair Labor Standards Act.

“They received nothing approximating the education they would receive in an academic setting or vocational school,” Pauley said in his decision. In addition, the interns can also now file a class action lawsuit against the company.

While this decision only affects internships on the New York state level, it has started a national conversation regarding unpaid internships and has resulted in other lawsuits against major companies, including The Hearst Corporation and Atlantic Records. Many companies are now evaluating their internship programs and some have even begun to pay their interns. NBC Universal began paying their interns after a lawsuit was brought against them in July.

A study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that in the class of 2012, 51 percent of paid interns were offered a job compared to only 41 percent of unpaid interns.

Christine Cruzvegara, director of University Career Services at Mason, believes that the companies who do give interns jobs after their internship typically have a more structured hiring process that begins far in advance. While others, such as non-profit companies, often do not have the resources to pay their interns and hire “just in time.”

“While we would love for all employers to pay interns, it’s not currently realistic in some industries and fields and we ultimately want to ensure that our students get the best experience to be competitive in the marketplace,” Cruzvegara said. She recommends that students consider the professional benefits of an internship, including hands on experience and networking.

“I’ll pick money over nothing,” says Mike De Robbio, a senior Government and International Politics major at Mason who has held three major internships over his collegiate career. “If it pays in experiential, networking and credit dividends like [my internship with] Congress did, I'd certainly consider it”.

Interns must also consider their commuting time and expenses, especially at Mason where students often get internships in Washington, D.C. Csilla Aglaure-Szekelyhidi, a senior Conflict Analysis and Resolution major, commutes approximately 1 hour and 35 minutes on the red line, 3 days per week, to her unpaid internship at One Common Unity in Columbia Heights.

“One way [to Columbia Heights] on the metro is $5.65, which is the peak price,” Aglaure-Szekelyhidi said. “Everyday that I commute using public transportation (since it is the fastest), I spend $11.30.”

Aglaure-Szekelyhidi doesn’t think that unpaid internships are necessarily bad, but does believe her internship is taking a toll on her finances.

“I love where I intern, but it's very difficult each week to know if I'll be able to come back purely on the fact that I might not be able to afford to get out [to Columbia Heights],” Agulaure-Szekelyhidi said. “The expectation that you have to do an unpaid internship before a paid one because we need to ‘pay our dues’ is unjustified and only contributes to the perpetual problem interns are facing daily.”

The intern image has been addressed through a variety of angles in the media. Typically, interns are portrayed as a young, enthusiastic twenty-something doing mindless errands for a harsh employer, usually for little or no pay. While such portrayals shed light on a harsh reality of the working world, not all internships involve getting insulted while buying coffee and grabbing your boss’s dry cleaning.

Internships are also becoming a common practice for students and a great selling point for many universities, especially those near large metropolitan areas like Mason. NACE found that, out of the class of 2012, 55 percent of graduates had paid internship experience while 63 percent had unpaid experience. In the spring of 2013, Mason had a total of 1,940 different internship listings on the HireMason website, 1,128 of which were paid.

Elyse Bailey, a senior Anthropology major, completed an internship abroad last semester with the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in central London. While she was not paid, she did receive credit for the internship. Bailey completed various administrative tasks, worked on social media, filed papers and helped with event planning. While Bailey learned about the public relations industry, anthropology and some data analysis, there were days when she was not very involved.

“There were a few slow days where they just didn't have a ton of work for me,” Bailey said. “[...] but I loved my internship and I learned a lot despite having no money.”

Regardless of the pay, internships can be a valuable source for professional experience and contacts.

“It all feels very rewarding and the work definitely helps the company out,” says Paul Asche, a senior engineering major who has a paid internship with Urban Engineering in Annandale. “I'm learning new things every day and can already see the benefits of the job”.

With all of the discussion around paid internships and the overall benefits, the unpaid position may become a thing of the past. Amanda Stecco, a government and international politics major with an internship at GMR Marketing, believes that unpaid internships are going to stay put.

“There's something really great about working so hard for something, not because you're getting paid, just because you love it so much and are that interested in it,” Stecco said.

Stecco also noted that she completed an unpaid internship with a congresswoman during her freshmen year.

University Career Services, located in Student Union Building 1, encourages students to meet with a Manager of Industry Advising and Employer Development for an appointment to discuss securing an internship. They also recommend and their job fairs as tools for finding jobs and internships. Career Services is currently working on a HireMason feature that will require employers to enter the learning objectives of an internship before posting, aiming to put an end to the days of underappreciated labor.

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