Are Internships Still Beneficial or Free Labor in a Bad Economy?

Internships have long been viewed by educators and professionals as a unique and beneficial experience. Having such positions also have a history of demonstrating prestige, determination, and a high amount of dedication to a student’s chosen field of study.

However, as economic woes have taken a toll on almost every industry, more and more work has become the responsibility of unpaid staff members, such as interns. This is especially true in the media, where rising operations costs and declining ad and sales revenue have led to layoffs, contract buyouts, and staff consolidation. The same amount of work is expected to be done with fewer staff members and less money, which leads to more responsibilities for unpaid staff members.

The Benefits of Having Internships

According to MI Intern, there are many benefits of having an internship, or multiple internships, while a student is still in college or has just completed his or her degree. The main advantage is that students get the chance to practice skills, theories, and other concepts in the classroom to real world professional situations.

There are also several other benefits to having an internship that provide a unique opportunity for students:

  • professional networking
  • increased self confidence
  • application of skills to real world experience
  • potential job and scholarship offers
  • academic credit
  • leadership and character development

In many fields, such as communications, education, and business, internships are fast becoming an easy way to stand out in competitive job markets.

Internships – A New Form of Modern Day Slavery?

There has been debate as to what are appropriate responsibilities for interns, especially unpaid interns. However, as bad economic times take a toll on all industries, more and more of the day-to-day operations, such as sorting mail, making copies, and running errands, are falling upon interns.

In article “Times, HuffPost Expand Unpaid Workforce” in The New York Observer, reporter Molly Fischer details how large-scale media outlets such as The New York Times and The Huffington Post have enlisted unpaid journalism students across the country to produce content, mostly in the form of online blogs and hyperlocal news outlets, without compensation. In the case of one group of New York University students working for the Times, the blog job is also seen as part of an academic course assignment.

The Huffington Post went looking for unpaid help by posting a “call for free labor” on Craigslist to produce content for its new college life section. Some students may have the opportunity to have a paid position, but Huffpo citizen journalism editor Adam Estes told the Observer in an email that “we expect that the by-line and exposure offered by our millions of readers will be the best way to give credit” due to the publication’s small operating budget.

Officials in the states of Oregon, California, and the United States Department of Labor have begun investigating many companies’ internship practices because they may fail to qualify as appropriate according to federal guidelines established for internships sponsored by for-profit companies and organizations.

In response, a student columnist for NYU’s Washington Square News published the editorial “Internships: The New Form of Slavery” describing the situation that many interns are facing today. While internships provide a resume boost for potential employers, interns often find themselves spending more time making copies and doing other low skill jobs instead of performing the tasks that they were hired to do. In the case of business, this may mean making copies and filing reports instead of updating websites or shadowing account managers during meetings. In the case of media internships, this could mean providing and generating content without compensation for one’s work, with or without a byline.

Internships help students gain valuable job experience, but the nature of that experience is becoming a question of debate due to rocky economic times. This debate, however, may eventually cause educators and professionals to reevaluate the terms of internships and the experiences students have in these positions.