Internships: Experience or Exploitation?

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When Johns Hopkins launched a new program offering paid internships with Baltimore-area non-profits, they found the response — more than 200 applications for 25 spots — “overwhelming.”

Which, if you think about it, is a little naive.  An internship is basically a necessity for today’s undergraduates, a way to make connections and build a resume. The feeling was present when I was an undergrad in the early 2000s — the sense that you’d never get a job unless you had a host of enviable institutions on your reference list; the idea that a summer spent lifeguarding or just lounging at your parents’ house, reading meant that you’d be left behind.

Which isn’t to say that all internships are worthy of these students’ time and enthusiasm. Many are unpaid, putting students in the unenviable position of having to beg to be allowed to work for free, sometimes at their fifteenth-choice organization. And of course there’s no guarantee that the work itself will be rewarding:  I got college credit for my “editorial internship” at a prestigious-sounding publication where my tasks included changing the boss’ license plate, filling out her daughter’s summer camp application (complete with forged signatures), bringing lunch to her daughter’s school when she forgot it, etc.

It’s partly in order to combat exploitative situations like this that the U.S. Labor Department recently revised its guidelines for unpaid internships with for-profit companies. Basically, if a student is getting credit for an internship, the work has to be structured like an educational experience. “The internship is for the benefit of the intern,” the Labor Department feels the need to proclaim — well, duh. But the fact that such an obvious guideline needs to be codified into law indicates how exploitative some situations have become.

So kudos to JHU for creating a program that seeks to place students in positions where they can contribute meaningfully to their community, where they’re overseen and protected by a university that takes their work seriously — and one that pays them well ($5000!). No wonder hundreds of students were interested — there’s not enough of this in the world.



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