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The Use of Interns is Increasingly a Paying Proposition

by on June 24, 2013 12:16 PM

Over the years, working as an intern has been a career stepping stone for millions of college students. It's a great way to learn the business and to showcase skills. But it's that concept of "work" that is now a bone of contention.

A United States district judge in New York recently ruled in favor of two former interns who said they performed basic tasks that paid employees should have handled.

The judge said the interns, who worked on the 2010 movie “Black Swan” and other productions for Fox Searchlight Pictures, were labeled incorrectly as “unpaid interns” when they should have been paid employees.

Bob Martin, who has been advising students in Penn State’s College of Communications on internship opportunities for 14 years, says that industries like film and broadcast have been synonymous with unpaid internships for years, but the situation appears to be improving.

“Things are getting better. I feel confident of that,” he says.

Companies like NBC Universal and MTV are starting to offer paid internships for the first time ever, he says. “I think you’re going to see more of that because of the fear of litigation.”

Under the U.S. Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standards Act, a number of factors determine whether an intern is paid or not. According to Martin, for an internship to be unpaid it's crucial that a business provides training and the intern does not displace a paid worker.

In many cases, using an intern may actually hurt a business because interns are still learning the job. They're simply not as skilled as regular, paid employees.

“Now how do you gauge that?” he says. “Most places are looking for a mutually advantageous situation where the student is deriving some benefit…but what company in their right mind is going to impede their own operation to take on an intern?”

Martin and his team have a database of about 3,500 internships available for students that are a mix of paid and unpaid opportunities. During his time at Penn State, Martin says he’s gone from advising students to work one internship to as many as possible throughout their college career – even if no money is involved.

“What we say to them is, ‘Who wouldn’t want to be paid?’” he says. “We advise them to go after enough opportunities so that they get interviews and multiple offers.”

Jackie Rahmer, a Penn State senior majoring in public relations, has worked two internships to gain more experience in her field of study. She looks for internships that will help strengthen her resume and make her more appealing to future employers. Rahmer says she’s not upset that she didn’t receive money because of how valuable the experiences were. Money would just be a bonus.

“That would be nice because you put in a lot of hours,” she says. “But the experience is what I’m interested in.”

There are many organizations in the State College area that offer students internship opportunities. Virginia Brown, executive director of the Centre Communities Chapter of the American Red Cross, says that interns play a critical role within the organization. Brown has worked at the Red Cross for 30 years and says internship opportunities have always been available during her time there.

“It’s such a golden opportunity,” she says about utilizing interns. “We have all of these great students who are here wanting to help. I think that they are a wonderful resource.”

Blood service interns do everything from the “less glamorous jobs” of preparing for a donation event to acting as an assistant blood service coordinator, Brown says. With the experience they get, some interns have gone on to land jobs in the blood service industry in Pennsylvania.

“Of course the student is going to lean toward that paid internship,” Martin says. “But we tell them to look at the investment overall. Look at the big picture and make sure it’s sending you in the right direction for your career.”

“You can’t be short-sighted and take the one that’s paid if it’s not really what you want to do. Everything’s an investment and sometimes the wrong investment can take you away from your career goals.”

Shawn Christ is a recent Penn State graduate who is working as an intern for
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