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Unpaid internships provide experience, but ethics questions remain

As students graduate and begin the search for jobs and open positions, smaller local businesses and organizations are typically where students will find unpaid internships, John Thompson, executive director of Career Services, said. However, he said the federal government is trying to stop the use of unpaid interns.

“There is a big push by the federal government to stop [unpaid] internships,” Thompson said. “They think that that’s exploitation of students, [and] they don’t think it’s fair.”

According to a New York Times opinion article, “the United States Department of Labor says an intern at a for-profit company may work without pay only when the program is similar to that offered in a vocational school, benefits the student, does not displace a regular employee and does not entitle the student to a job; in addition, the employer must derive ‘no immediate advantage’ from the student’s work and both sides must agree that the student is not entitled to wages.”

Thompson said, “The newest wrinkle is that there is a huge debate over the ethics behind unpaid and paid internships. And because the government is coming down on the side of ‘We don’t happen to like unpaid internships,’ a lot of employers are frightened to do any hiring.”

Thompson said it is possible for the number of unpaid internships to drop, and students’ opportunities to drop with them.

“If that source [of unpaid internships] dries up then there won’t be as many opportunities,” he said. “[Unpaid internships] have the potential of a huge decline.”

Thompson said some organizations support the government and want free work halted. For other companies, though, it is part of the company policy to use unpaid interns.

“Some companies still want to have the internship experience but they don’t want to pay,” he said. “They either don’t have the money to pay, or it’s just not been the custom of the company to do that over the years, and everybody that’s entered the company has come through an internship program.”

Amber Harris, a senior fashion merchandising major, said being an intern at a company can be good for the future.

“If I stay on and show how I’d be as an employee, I think that would show the employer how I would be a great candidate if they plan to offer me a job at the end,” Harris said.

Because of the push by the government, though, Thompson said a lot of companies do not want to hire college students because they are afraid of getting in trouble with the government for having unpaid interns. He said this worry is the reason these companies are waiting to hire interns until they are no longer students. Thompson said these internships after graduation are called “externships.”

Thompson said Career Services helps seniors find externships that can help them go on to other jobs in the future. He also said he wanted to develop a program with companies to help recruit companies for externships. Now employers can only tell students about internships and externships via FrogJobs.

Noe Guevara, a senior supply chain management major, said FrogJobs reminded him of a job offer with JCPenney. He will have that job after he graduates from TCU. Although he has never had an unpaid internship, he said he would be open to going into an externship if necessary.

“If there were no other offers, I’d be kind of excited [to have an externship] because that will give me something else to throw on my résumé,” Guevara said. “If I didn’t have too much on my résumé, then I guess I’d be a little happier because I’d have something else to market myself better.”

Harris said she has had two internships. Her first one was with a boutique called Blinc in Plano. She said she took the internship to gain experience and knowledge about the field she wants to go into after college. She said she is also currently a marketing intern with TCU Athletics.

“I think any experience is good experience,” Harris said. “If you find a job that you want to work at and all they offer is an internship, they might offer you a job later.”

Thompson said he could not name “more than a handful” of companies that offer externships. He said there could be more externships than he knew because he does not hear about them as much, but they increase when the economy has a downturn.

Thompson said he did not know a percentage of how many graduating seniors went on to externships and jobs because there is not a system set up to collect that data, and neither students nor employers tell the university.

Career Services is trying to gather data through surveys on the back of the seniors’ marching cards. It has done this for the past two semesters and have gotten about two-thirds of the graduates to respond. Of these two-thirds, the survey found that one-third were planning on going to graduate school. He said they were also able to find that the average salary for graduates was $45,000.

He said they did not know how many of the respondents specifically took internships. He said he hoped to get more data from this graduating class because more people will be on either side of the graduates to remind them to fill out the survey.


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