Unpaid interns struggle to make ends meet
Months after graduating with honors from Northwestern University, Jeannie Vanasco began receiving food stamps and Medicaid. She had a full-time position at a prestigious literary magazine in New York City, but she was an unpaid intern.Skip to next paragraph
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"During my senior year, I thought there's no way I'll ever take an unpaid internship," says Ms. Vanasco, who depended on a full scholarship to attend college. But after looking at the paying alternatives, she reconsidered her pledge. "I knew I could get a paid job, but all of them seemed so dreary, and [publishing] is what I went to college for," explains Vanasco, a creative-writing major.
The problem was that most entry-level publishing positions were unpaid. To prepare for her internship, Vanasco spent the summer of 2006 working three jobs and lived in a "really disgusting apartment with all these filthy college boys." Despite her efforts, rent for the first few months consumed her savings. Not wanting to burden her mother, a librarian making minimum wage, she applied for government assistance.
Internships are steadily becoming – if not already – an institutionalized part of the college experience and a requisite for entry-level work. Though internships offer undeniable benefits, workplace experts are questioning the fairness of unpaid or extremely low-paying internships.
"Unpaid internships are certainly available or certainly commonplace," says Mark Oldman, coauthor of numerous internship guides and cofounder of Vault Inc., a career counseling company. According to a survey conducted by his firm last year, 36 percent of students said they were not paid for their internships.
Intern remuneration varies largely depending on the industry. Fields like computer programming or engineering are much more likely to offer interns compensation, sometimes in excess of $25 per hour.
"Glamour industries" such as television, publishing, and politics are notorious for offering unpaid or low-paying internships. In an article for Slate.com, Sonia Smith used the 2005 edition of the Princeton Review "Internship Bible" to calculate that 62 percent of television internships, 52 percent of magazine internships, and 54 percent of political and public-policy internships were unpaid.
There's a "certain amount of tradition or even hazing that goes on in these glamour positions," says Mr. Oldman. He argues that in fields like television, unpaid interns are equally as disadvantaged as entry-level employees. "If you want to break in at the entry level, you have to take a vow of poverty," he says.
Creating this kind of environment for interns troubles Gina Neff, a University of Washington assistant professor. She studies media industries, jobs in the new economy, and internships in the communications industry.
"I think there's a tendency to say, 'OK, kiddos, just suck it up!' " she says. "There is this sense that there needs to be great economic sacrifice to get to these kinds of jobs. Sadly, what it means is that you're locking out people who can't afford to work for free."
Reflecting on her experiences interning in publishing, Vanasco is bothered by the lack of diversity among her fellow interns and the publishing industry as a whole. "I don't think that everyone's white," she says. "It's more that everyone came from comfortable backgrounds."
In an effort to boost diversity, a number of universities and organizations have started offering young people internship stipends.
"The concept of finding funding to allow students to take unpaid internships is something that sort of caught fire nationally," says Kino Ruth, director of the Career Center at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.
In three years, Hamilton went from offering one internship stipend to 30 and has plans to offer more.
Still, 40 percent of university communications departments polled by Ms. Neff reported that none of their unpaid internships offered stipends. "These [stipends] are a fantastic place to start," says Neff. "But I think it needs to come from companies who have a responsibility to these young people."
If companies in the United States paid every unpaid intern minimum wage, it would cost at most $124 million annually, estimates Anya Kamenetz, author of "Generation Debt," which characterizes student-loan debt as being at a tipping point.