Over the summer, Virginia Tech students and college students all over the country worked in unpaid internships in different professional sectors with varying levels of success.
But unpaid internships have become a hot topic among members of government, higher education institutions and employers.
A federal judge in New York recently ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated minimum wage and overtime laws by not paying interns that worked on the movie “Black Swan.” The two interns who filed the suit said that they were doing menial labor, such as preparing coffee, and stated that they didn’t receive educational experience or training while interning.
This lawsuit has prompted discussion regarding the legality and ethics of unpaid internships. On Virginia Tech’s campus, Career Services follows the standards set by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
“We believe that the U.S. Department of Labor criteria…must be reviewed and further clarified to ensure they account for the incredible diversity of students, higher education institutions and employing organizations involved in such programs,” the NACE said in a June 2010 statement.
“… For an unpaid internship to qualify, it has to be directly applicable to their academic courses,” said Jim Henderson, associate director of Employer Relations at Virginia Tech Career Services. “The benefit of that work really should be for the student and not for the employer. It should never be to replace a paid worker.”
“When we have employers that post jobs on Hokies4Hire, many of them want to have unpaid internships,” Henderson said. “We’ll have that discussion with them about what’s eligible for an unpaid internship. But still, each student should do due diligence.”
Unpaid internships that require a student to travel or live in an expensive area can force students to spend more then their internship is worth.
“There’s an unnecessary burden on college students with unpaid internships,” said Steven Kark, director of internships for the department of English. “It’s how some companies are training employees. I think it’s becoming more and more common.”
The practice of using unpaid interns is saving the companies money by providing them with free labor, but it’s costing students.
Kark points out that putting the financial burden on students is unethical, and that companies are beginning to require students to receive credit for unpaid internships in order to avoid prosecution, such as was the case with Fox Searchlight Pictures.
“A few company representatives have said that by requiring it (the unpaid internship) for credit, they’re avoiding that legal problem,” said Kark.
“The thing that these companies don’t recognize is that students have to pay for these credits.”
“There’s still a lot of confusion, and a lot of employers are still looking for free labor,” said Henderson.
Credit hours at Tech range from $400 per credit hour for in-state residents, and can add up to over $1,000 per credit for out-of-state students.
Unpaid internships don’t always lead to negative experiences though. Several students at Tech have taken unpaid internships for credit, and have gained experience relevant to their degrees.
Students like Michelle Tompson, a senior in Animal and Poultry Sciences, have the option of doing capstone classes that count for internship credit. Tompson interned at the Marine Animal Care Center in Virginia Beach, which is associated with the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, as part of her capstone experience.
“I think it was really good for my resume,” said Tompson. “Right now I’m applying for paid jobs and jobs with animals. Those kind of paid internships are difficult to find.”
Despite successful internships, some departments, such as the architecture department, have created regulations against unpaid internships.
“A few years ago, regulations changed, so you can’t get credit towards your degree in architecture unless you’re paid,” said Maggie Osial, a fifth year architecture student.
For now though, students will be happy with whatever internship experience they can get — paid or otherwise.