Local Colleges, Businesses Back Unpaid Internships

Although they have recently come under fire by critics, unpaid internships can still pay off for area college students.

While local colleges undoubtedly do all they can to help their students receive compensation along with the professional and educational experience they receive, even unpaid internships have their redeeming factors.

“It’s pretty obvious that there are benefits to be derived from an internship, even if it happens to be from an unpaid internship,” said David Conklin, president of Jamestown Business College. “An unpaid internship is designed for a student who needs to get experience. They need to get that experience, so an unpaid internship provides a benefit to them.”

Conklin said one problem with unpaid internships, aside from the less-than-ideal situation of providing no income, is that they can be intrinsically risky in terms of educational value.

“The downside is – and this could occur with paid internships, as well – it’s very difficult to ensure or guarantee a good learning experience.”

This seems to be the case in the recent campaign of college students in metropolitan areas – such as New York, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles – against employers’ use of unpaid interns to do the work of employees.

According to an Associated Press article, the backlash against working for free – and sometimes paying tuition for the privilege- comes after a federal judge in New York recently ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated federal minimum wage and overtime laws by not paying interns who worked on the 2010 movie ”Black Swan.” Angry interns have also sued record companies, magazine publishers, modeling agencies and TV talk show hosts.

Tracy Collingwood, director of the career development office at SUNY Fredonia, said Fredonia utilizes safeguards to prevent its students from having an unsatisfactory experience in their internships.

“We would never approve an internship where (students) are simply doing things like data entry and getting coffee and not learning anything,” Collingwood said. “We give our students opportunities, but we don’t want to exploit them in any way. All credit-bearing internships require that student interns complete a learning contract for experiential education that clearly identifies educational objectives and job requirements.”

Each student’s learning contract must be signed by the intern, faculty sponsor and site supervisor. It lists specific methods of evaluation, including: reflection, written journals, logs, papers, samples of work completed at the internship site, as well as mid-term and final evaluations required from both the intern and site supervisor.

Collingwood said Fredonia adheres to the six criteria, as listed in the Fair Labor Standards Act, that designate the conditions under which an unpaid intern can participate in “for-profit” private sector internships.

The criteria are: the internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment; the internship experience is for the benefit of the intern; the intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff; the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded; the intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and the employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

“It’s all about experiential education,” Collingwood said. “The pros of doing an internship, for anyone, is you get the training. And, sometimes, there could be opportunities. The networking ability to learn on the job and apply classroom knowledge is essential today to be competitive.”

Nelson Garifi, director of marketing and communications at Jamestown Community College, said JCC’s philosophy is similar.

“We recognize that students learn in a variety of ways and experiential learning – learning by doing – is key among them,” Garifi said. “We offer students job and career shadowing experiences, as well as a full array of internships. For many academic programs, internships are included among the degree requirements and may also be called practicum or fieldwork experiences.”

Garifi said JCC’s internship program provides a short-term, credit-bearing work experience in which a student is mentored by a professional who provides on-the-job learning. Each internship is overseen by a faculty sponsor who helps the student and the site supervisor define learning objectives, oversees internship activities and, in consultation with the site supervisor, evaluates the student’s performance to determine his or her grade.

“JCC’s internships include both paid and unpaid opportunities, and we have been following the national dialog regarding the future of unpaid experiences,” Garifi said. “For the most part, students understand that although they may not be receiving regular paychecks for their internships, the payoff will come later as they have built their resumes, networked with potential employers, explored new interests and found more meaning in their academic studies.”