Internships offer real opportunities with some pitfalls

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I was lucky enough to land an internship this semester that applies directly to both of my majors and will provide real-world experience in a field I’m interested in working in. I’m also lucky to have an internship adviser who looks out for students’ best interests, and that my internship involves working with a professor here at SVSU who takes seriously the role of internships as an educational tool. I say “lucky” because not everyone who does an internship is ultimately benefited by their experience.

Many students feel that any internship is always a good idea, regardless of the circumstances. This outlook is problematic in a few ways. Don’t get me wrong; every undergrad should be seriously looking at doing one or more internships while they pursue their degree. There’s a reason why many majors have internships and field work as a graduation requirement.

However, students need to be realistic about what an internship can do for them. They also need to be aware of the ways that internships can be abused by employers who have no interest in furthering people’s education and are simply looking for free labor.

It’s important to keep in mind that there’s nothing magical about internships. They’re not a guarantee of future employment, it’s often difficult to find internships that perfectly apply to your studies or desired career path, and they usually consist of real labor for low or no pay. Contrary to the belief of many and despite the personal sacrifices involved, unpaid internships are no more likely to lead to a job offer than paid ones.

Internships should be seen as an opportunity, rather than a direct route into any given workplace. They are a way of getting your foot in the door. Internships allow you to build a resume based around real-world, professional-quality skills and completed projects. Under the best of circumstances, they constitute proof that your studies have paid off and you can deal with the challenges you’re likely to face in the professional field of your choosing. They offer networking opportunities, class credit and a chance to fine-tune professional skills.

Where this can all go wrong, however, is in disturbingly common cases of employers abusing the internship system. As Katherine Durack writes in her 2013 article “Sweating Employment”, an internship is meant to be “some sort of substantive experiential learning opportunity that links theory to practice and education to employment.”

Work assigned to interns has to be directly related to the skills that students will need to translate their education into workplace experience. Otherwise, it could constitute exploitation.
According to federal law, internships must be for the benefit of the intern, can’t be used to eliminate paid employees and need to be similar to training even when it includes actual work. Additionally, employers cannot legally exploit internship activities for a profit.

There are stories abound of interns being forced to do menial labor having nothing to do with their studies, or being worked for far more hours than their internship requires.

“An internship shouldn’t be seen as employment, by the intern or the host, whether or not the internship is paid or unpaid,” said Beth Jorgensen, my internship coordinator in SVSU’s Rhetoric and Professional Writing department.

When I asked her what students should watch out for when pursing internships, she went on to tell me that her red flags for problematic internship positions include interns being assigned to tasks that are unrelated to their studies; hosts who repeatedly request interns for consecutive semesters to carry out the same tasks; hosts who put pressure on interns to work under the same kinds of deadlines as employees; unreasonable expectations like non-compete clauses and drug testing; and interns being expected to apply technical skills in a workplace as an employee would rather than work alongside experts in an area they are studying.

All of the issues mentioned above are actual examples of employers abusing the internship system that Jorgensen has had to deal with. Cases such as interns being forced to perform menial tasks all day or complete projects independently without guidance have led to interns being pulled out of their host’s workplace, or denial of subsequent internships to the host.

For the minority of employers who irresponsibly exploit interns, internship programs are a way to get the same work that a new hire or full-time assistant might do from a free or underpaid intern. This is even more troubling than it seems; not only are interns being taken advantage of and not being given the experience they signed on for, but as a result, recent graduates can be priced out of these workplaces.

The good news is that in my experience, internship coordinators here at SVSU are very good at protecting the interests of interns. If you as a student ever have any concerns regarding a particular internship position and the work being assigned to you, talk to your department’s internship coordinator. They can help address any issues you may have and ensure that your internship is legitimate and contributes to your education and professional development.

Don’t be exploited. Speak up if there’s a problem.