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Working for Free

With internship application deadlines approaching fast, ‘tis the season to sacrifice lazy Sunday activities for the Boston University CareerLink. But while students clamor for highly competitive spots in their field of choice, government officials have been investigating the value and legality of unpaid internships.

For an unpaid internship to be legal, training needs to be similar to that of a vocational school, employers can’t get any immediate value from the intern and the intern can’t fulfill duties that would otherwise be given to a paid worker.

The only problem? Many unpaid internships routinely break all of those rules. Take a few of the internships listed on BU’s CareerLink. For an arts-administration internship at the Boston Ballet: “The arts administration intern will assist in the preparation and execution of the summer programs and corresponding audition tour, which will involve recruitment of students, planning for students’ artistic experience in Boston and arrangements for the artistic staff,” the posting said.

Or for a museum-education intern for the Provincetown Art Association and Museum – responsibilities include marketing jobs such as, “promotion of program, including distribution/writing of catalogues and writing of press releases; distribution of flyers and posters; creation of promotional material” and “general correspondence for programming and office help.”


The website for the BU Center for Career Development emphasizes the importance of the “internship experience.”

“An internship can be an important part of your university experience,” the website says. “It can help to balance academic work with practical, hands-on experience. It is a wonderful way to learn more about a career field, job type or work environment.”

Frank Shorr, the internship coordinator for the College of Communication’s broadcast journalism department, said that all the internships he helps arrange meet these goals.
“Internships, in general, are the most [importamt] undertaking a student can avail himself [or herself] of,” he wrote in an email. “The fact that some are unpaid is irrelevant. The student intern experience serves two purposes: firstly, to become aware of what it’s like to work in an intensive professional atmosphere and secondly, start the networking process.”

“I can tell you there simply is no exploitation,” Shorr, head of COM’s Sports Institute, added. “The employer get valuable people to assist in the production of the tasks at hand and the student learns skills he or she would never pick up in a classroom. As the executive sports producer for WHDH-TV for 21 years, I know I relied on my interns to performs tasks so that I could keep an eye on the ‘bigger picture.’

However, some students said the reality of internships does not always line up with these expectations.

A College of Communication student who wished to remain anonymous spoke of her unpaid internship at a prominent production company.

“I signed up to learn about television, and instead spent my time buying groceries for the office at Shaws and restocking chips,” she said.

Even some professors said unpaid internships may be exploitative.

“I don’t think they are necessarily unethical,” COM Senior Lecturer Peter Smith wrote in an email. “They can be if an employer is asking you to do tasks that do not enhance your education.”

In a recent article in HR Magazine called “Unpaid internships break the law but only 12 percent of managers know it,” Internocracy CEO Becky Heath said some unpaid interns are being manipulated.

“The reality is that, if an organization takes on someone to do work for them, whether or not they are called an intern, they should be paid at least national minimum wage if they are being given responsibilities and are expected to work set hours,” she said. “Intern isn’t code for free labor and it’s time companies stopped profiting from exploiting young people.”

According to a 2010 New York Times article, officials in some states (including California and Oregon) have begun fining employers for violating minimum wage laws after thorough investigation of their internship programs.

There may be some light at the end of the tunnel, however: recently, the CEO of speculated in The Huffington Post that as the economy improves, the number of paid internships will rise, giving students the opportunity to be more selective.


Some students, however, said they appreciate their unpaid internship experiences. Metropolitan College Junior Nairi Khatch said she enjoyed her time interning at Beth Israel last summer as a research assistant.

“I didn’t get paid, but I didn’t feel exploited either,” says Khatch. “I was helping on a specific experiment with two graduate students and another undergraduate in a lab with a tech who taught me a lot. I definitely learned.”

When asked how she acquired the internship, she admitted to having had connections.

“I think it was a good experience,” she elaborated, “And I was allowed to do a lot of things that I wouldn’t have normally done in a school lab. Plus it looks great on my resume.”

As a former WGBH intern, COM Junior Sydney Lindberg also said she felt her unpaid experience was worth it.

“Unfortunately you don’t get paid, but hopefully having internship experience will land me a paying job right away when I graduate,” she said.

Shorr concurred, saying that interns get to be “in the right place at the right time.”

“Jobs come available, interns hear about them and if they prove themselves capable, [they] might even be offered a paying position,” he said.

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