(Unpaid) Internships and Experiential Learning

Seems one of the buzz-concepts these days is “education that happens outside the classroom.”  Never mind, for now, that there are interesting ideological battles buried beneath that phrase; let us just focus on a minor practical/moral minefield associated with it.  As the conversation turns to “experiential learning” (read “internships”) faculty and administration would do well to catch up on the latest legal rulings and national conversations around the topic of paid and unpaid internships.

One element of the standard by which internships are judged (across both for-profit and non-profit sectors) as actually being “internships” is this:

“To be considered a ‘trainee’ the internship must primarily benefit the intern – not the employer.” (Council of Non-Profits).

You be the judge: consider a recent email distributed by a college Career Services Center announcing an internship at a local non-profit:

“X’s internship program is a vital part of the organization’s operating structure. The goal of the internship program is to provide opportunities for training … allows participants to assume professional-level responsibilities, receive training and guidance …. Interns should … possess strong communication skills and have computer skills.”

For one position: “Responsibilities may include seeking business donations/sponsorships, coordinating auction artists, creating and maintaining Excel spreadsheets…, catalog production, event production and entertainment, installation, coordinating volunteers, decoration design, publicity and marketing, webpage preparation and maintenance and membership tracking.”

For another: “Responsibilities include processing digital images of current exhibition programming for our website, press purposes and our digital archive. Proficiency in Photoshop is required. A working knowledge of Illustrator and In Design is a plus and access to a Digital SLR camera is preferred.”

A June 2013 court ruling gave some guidelines for FOR-PROFIT organizations based on the Fair Labor Standards Act.  The conversation about non-profit organizations continues.  Among the issues we might want to talk about as educators:

  1. Is it legal?
  2. Is it right: do organizations hide behind “it’s an opportunity…”?
  3. Is it right: are organizations using it as a way to screen before hiring?
  4. Is it right: are organizations blackmailing young people: “if you ever want to work here, you’ll have to provide free labor first.”
  5. Is it right for us to charge tuition and require volunteer work for academic credit?
  6. Does the practice discriminate against those who cannot afford to do unpaid internships?
  7. Are unpaid internships good for those who get them?

“A recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers finds that a paid internship has distinct advantages over an unpaid internship. The survey reveals that 63.1 percent of paid interns who graduated in 2013 received a job offer, compared with 37 percent of those whose internships were unpaid.” BUToday 09.23.2013

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