EL PASO, Texas — This is not a diatribe against employers who abuse unpaid interns – promise.
But an entreaty for the news industry, media companies and others to step up to offer more internships – the kind that pay students to leave home for a few months every summer, learn to navigate a new environment and obtain advanced work skills.
The subject is on my mind because of a recent story in the New York Times about employers who bring on interns and ask them to answer routine email, sweep or polish doorknobs instead of letting them do substantial work assignments. The story notes that some states and the federal government are cracking down on employers who “are illegally using” interns for “free labor.
While the story doesn’t offer hard data on offending employers or the prevalence of unpaid internships, it does quote a career development officer at a nationally ranked university who “sees definitive evidence that the number of unpaid internships is mushrooming.”
This conclusion doesn’t surprise in light of the recession, depressing job market aggravated in my industry – news media – by the contraction of print and broadcast media newsrooms with the concurrent shift to online news. Unpaid internships in English and Spanish news media, especially among elite national publications and broadcast outlets, have been common as rye grass for a long time and now may be satisfying staffing shortages at some.
It makes sense for the government to get tough on employers who mistreat college interns, but lets not discourage the many well-meaning employers who offer legitimate internships (unpaid and paid) to help train the next generation of professionals in fields such as news media, sports, advertising, business and accounting. We need more internships not less.
There currently aren’t enough of them around to accommodate all the students who need one, and, selfishly, and I don’t want to see the opportunities shrink, making it harder for students from Hispanic majority schools like the University of Texas at El Paso on the U.S.-Mexico border, or Imperial Valley College in El Centro, Calif. to compete for these choice slots.
The truth is that Hispanic undergraduates (there are 1.3 million in the U.S. and half of them attend the more affordable Hispanic Serving colleges and universities) have enough trouble as it is competing for internships. Many go to school and work part time to help support themselves or their family. They can’t afford to give up a steady paycheck to accept an unpaid internship in Washington, D.C. or Los Angeles.
This puts them at a huge disadvantage when they graduate. For example, it’s common knowledge that it’s almost impossible to land a journalism job without practical experience in news media usually obtained through internships.
I’ve witnessed quite a few recent frustrated journalism grads give up on their dream to work in their profession and instead take a job teaching high school or grade school, which is relatively easy in Texas if you have a bachelor’s degree. One former student, a highly talented and motivated young man who studied broadcasting, recently called to ask if I knew of any opening in TV news. It’s been two years since he graduated and he still hasn’t found a news job. As I recall, he never completed an internship outside our geographic area.
When I’ve done informal polls of my UTEP students, I learn that more than three-quarters of them carry a full time class load and work part time or full time. Give them a choice between a paid summer stocking shelves or selling shoes or an unpaid internship in Washington, DC or Los Angeles, I’ll bet you can guess which one they’ll take.
On the other hand, students who complete internships are thriving. I know of several. There’s the persistent electronic media major with a few internships under her belt who recently landed a job at ESPN, and another who interned at the local newspaper while she was a UTEP student, later went to work as a reporter for a Texas paper and now freelances stories for National Public Radio. Another intrepid young Communication major recently secured, on her own, an internship at National Geographic in Washington, DC. And yet another reporter completed a paid internship at the Scripps Howard News Bureau in Washington a few years ago and went on to obtain a master’s degree in media law.
The success stories (there are many more) should be incentive enough for today’s budget-minded media recruiters to hire and pay interns.
For a few thousand dollars, they will help launch the career of a bright, enthusiastic young media professional that brings fresh ideas and cutting edge technology skills to newsrooms. It’s a win for everyone.