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How Internships Work

Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry) from NBC's hit show "Friends" was famous for working as an unpaid intern in his adult years. NBC/Getty Images
Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry) from NBC's hit show "Friends" was famous for working as an unpaid intern in his adult years. NBC/Getty Images

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Once upon a time (2003), a group of fictional friends gathered in Central Perk to hear Chandler Bing's exciting announcement.

"I got a job in advertising," he says.

"Oh hey, that's incredible!" exclaims Monica.

"Gosh, what's the pay like?" Phoebe inquires.

"Actually, it pays nothing. It's an internship," Chandler responds.

Because we as a society have mutually agreed to herald television as the all-knowing source of education and comfort, this particular "Friends" scenario teaches us a thing or two about employment in America. Internships are common, but typically not for adults; internships are important, but often they're unpaid; internships are critical, but often demeaning ("There's gonna be some grunt work which will stink. A grown man getting people coffee is humiliating," Chandler says).

In the fictional "Friends" scenario, Chandler successfully spun his internship into a full-time role. And the data shows that this isn't entirely out of the question in the real world — in fact, a 2016 survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) study revealed that more than 72 percent of paid internships led to job offers — the highest rate since the market hit a pre-recession peak. But for unpaid interns like Chandler, the prospect of employment wasn't so likely: Less than 44 percent got job offers from internships, which was just a bit better than graduates who scored job offers with no internship experience to speak of (36.5 percent). [source: NACE].

So the data says one thing, and our beloved TV spirit guides say another, but what's the real deal with internships? Are the facts really facts, or just assumptions rooted in popular culture representations and widespread misinformation? Time to find out...

A coveted internship on NBC's TODAY show can be a launching pad for someone interested in pursuing television media. NBC/Getty Images
A coveted internship on NBC's TODAY show can be a launching pad for someone interested in pursuing television media. NBC/Getty Images

Chandler Bing's not the only famous fictional intern, of course. Robert De Niro portrayed a 70-year-old "senior intern" in 2015's big screen movie "The Intern," and two years earlier, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson played two salesmen-turned-Googlers in "The Internship."

But in all these representations, the comedy lies in the concept of grown-ups taking on pre-entry-level roles intended for a younger crowd. So where did that concept even come from?

If you're looking for someone to thank (or blame) for the term "intern," look no further than the medical community. After World War I, everyone agreed that medical school alone would no longer cut it when it came to physician training. Doctors in training soon came to be known as "interns," and the political world later adopted the term as an alternative way to refer to "apprentices," or people interested in learning about government jobs [source: Haire and Oloffson].

As internships emerged as a trend across industries, co-op programs cropped up on college campuses, providing students the opportunity to work at companies and earn tuition money while gaining professional experience. The co-op program originated at Northeastern University in 1909, but it didn't become a trend until the 1960s. Between 1970 and 1983, the number of universities offering co-op programs jumped from 200 to 1,000 [source: Haire and Oloffson].

Today, some institutions use the term "co-op" and "internship" interchangeably, but others consider them completely distinct. Students participating in co-ops generally pause their classes to work full-time for anywhere from three to 12 months, while students participating in internship programs usually complete their work over the course of a set semester or summer [source: Boyington].

San Francisco resident Ricquel Newman has managed many interns over her 15 years as a local news producer for the San Francisco ABC affiliate. "I'd have anywhere from three interns and up to six at one point," she says. "The position showed the students how to research, communicate as a representative of the media, and to learn what makes a story newsworthy for air. They could work up to 20 hours a week." Newman says the internships allowed students to explore the various paths within broadcasting, and it provided the company with quality work. "It was a win-win for the company and the students," she says.

College admissions consultant Irena Smiths says internships are very useful for students in STEM fields where they can get hands-on experience. Vladimir Smirnov/TASS via Getty Images
College admissions consultant Irena Smiths says internships are very useful for students in STEM fields where they can get hands-on experience. Vladimir Smirnov/TASS via Getty Images

"Internships are not a must for all students," Irena Smith, Ph.D., a college admissions consultant in Palo Alto, California, says via email. "They tend to be most useful for students interested in research-based STEM fields (biology, chemistry, neuroscience, biotechnology, data analysis, artificial intelligence) as well as fields in the humanities and social sciences (psychology, history, political science, economics)." She says internships in these fields can be good ways to get hands-on experience, most frequently in a university, laboratory or research library environment.

That said, many people in non-STEM fields have still seen success as a direct result of their internships. Take Emilia Varshavsky Shapiro, for example. She spun a Silicon Valley college internship into a long-term stint at Yahoo. "Getting the internship, and then the full-time job, came down to relationships," the 31-year-old says. "My uncle was an engineer at Yahoo and passed along my resume for the summer internship as a technical writing intern."

But Smith sees the value in internships across other industries, too, including marketing, law, urban planning and architecture, and says students can also gain valuable experience through volunteering, coaching or summer jobs, particularly if they don't know what their career path yet.

But what about non-students and more mature job-seekers? Should the Chandler Bings of the world consider seeking out internship opportunities or are those solely reserved for high school and college-aged kids (as evidenced by Chandler's fellow interns referring to him as "sir")?

Smith says post-grads can definitely benefit from internships, especially if they're training in competitive fields. "Internships can be a good way to get a foot through the door," she says. "Once you've made yourself indispensable in your (initially minor) position and become familiar with the workings of the company in which you're interning, a job offer may follow."

That's what happened for Shapiro at Yahoo. Although she did land the internship during her college years, the opportunity paved the way for a long-term gig. She proved herself by doing a good job during her internship but also worked hard to make connections while there, including someone who became the manager of her internship team. "I reached out to [her former internship manager] just before graduation and he gave me a three-month contract that three weeks later turned into a full-time offer," Shapiro says. "I ended up working at Yahoo for about six years."

Newman's own experience was similar: During college, she interned on the assignment desk for one local news station and then hopped to another station where she worked as a research intern. "I worked very hard and proved myself to my supervisor at the time and I was offered her job [when] she became a full-time producer," Newman says. "If it hadn't been for that internship, I may have had a much harder time getting a job in a large market such as San Francisco."

The debate over paid versus unpaid internships has been brewing for years, and not just in the United States. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
The debate over paid versus unpaid internships has been brewing for years, and not just in the United States. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

According to the NACE 2016 Internship & Co-op Survey Report, the average hourly wage for interns at the undergraduate level hasn't changed much in the past seven years, hovering around $17.69.

But, as many a long-suffering intern knows, not all internships are paid. That's despite the fact that according to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), interns in the "for-profit" private sector almost always qualify as employees rather than trainees and typically must be paid at least minimum wage and overtime [source: WHD].

The U.S. Department of Labor has a six-factor test that requires the following criteria to be met for an unpaid internship:

  1. The internship is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment.
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the end of the internship.
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship [source: WHD].

But, after a nearly five-year battle in the courts brought on by two interns — Eric Glatt and Alex Footman who sued Fox Searchlight Pictures in 2011 for violating federal and New York state minimum wage laws — the DOL's six factor test is on shaky ground. The judge in the case, which made it all the way to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, essentially tossed out the test out for being outdated for the times and replaced it with another set of rules that rely less on whether employers "derive no immediate advantage" from the work provided by the interns [source: Zara].

The new test evaluates different factors, such as whether:

  1. The intern and the employer understand that there is no expectation of compensation during the internship and no job guarantee thereafter.
  2. The internship provides similar training to that given in an educational environment—like clinical training.
  3. The internship is tied to the intern's formal education program through integrated coursework or academic credit.
  4. The internship is aligned with the academic calendar.
  5. The intern's work complements — rather than displaces — paid employees' work and provides significant educational benefits to the intern [source: Nagele-Piazza].

Despite the Second Circuit Court's new primary beneficiary test for unpaid intern status, the DOL's test is still used in most states.

"Most unpaid or low-stipend internships at for-profit companies are against the law — not just in the U.S. but around the world," says Ross Perlin, author of the book "Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy." "Yet in a very short period, the practice of virtually requiring unpaid work to get ahead has become normalized in so many industries."

TV producer Newman says the interns she employed were always paid the minimum wage, but that wasn't always the case. "As times have changed, the rules have as well," she says, "and [interns] are treated as employees during the duration of their internship that would be six to nine months."

Smith says most internships for high schoolers may still generally be voluntary because interns are usually compensated based on their experience. But unpaid or not, the internships still give these students invaluable opportunities. "[They are] exposed to and gain experience in a field of interest, whether molecular biology, big data analysis or law," Smith says. "What those internships lack in payment, they make up for in hands-on experience — how to operate a high-tech microscope or other lab equipment, how to work with a professional team, how to present ideas in a group setting."

While some fields may necessitate internships for the sake of education and experience, author Perlin strongly believes payment should almost always be prioritized. "There are very few circumstances in which anyone, whether a student or not, should be working unpaid," he says. "Essentially, it needs to be either a bona fide training program at a for-profit company or a true volunteer situation at a non-profit."

Based on her own experience, Shapiro agrees that fair compensation should be an essential component in the internship decision-making process. "Internships are critical and should very much be paid," Shapiro says. "You're doing real work. Being an intern gave me valuable networking opportunities, a chance to see what the corporate and tech world had to offer, and 100 percent contributed to me having a job upon graduation. I finished college in 2008 — a notoriously poor year for job-hunting — and I had a Yahoo badge before I had flipped my tassel."

Tons of websites provide options for internship seekers, and friends and family can also be helpful resources. Jed Share/Kaoru Share/Getty Images
Tons of websites provide options for internship seekers, and friends and family can also be helpful resources. Jed Share/Kaoru Share/Getty Images

When it comes to tracking down the right internships, different strategies work for different people. Some, like Shapiro, may have the best luck hitting up friends and family members, while others may opt for a more formal process.

"Often, the college and career center at a student's high school or college will have extensive listings of internship and work opportunities," Smith says. "Parents, friends of parents, and parents of friends can also be helpful resources. And although daunting, contacting university professors or businesses can provide some unexpected opportunities as well."

Plenty of websites also provide options for internship seekers, including LinkedIn. College Magazine ranked Internships.com (It's basically the eHarmony of internship sites), Mediabistro.com and Idealist.com among the richest resources [source: Alvarado]. And don't discount a simple Google search.

Interns should seek out opportunities where they can work with smart and motivated individuals in the career field of their interest, as well. Selecting an internship with a small company that will provide access to mentors and networking opportunities might prove more useful than an internship with a larger business with less of those chances. And prospective interns should also consider the work they will walk away with after they leave. Will they work on projects and have proven new skills they can show prospective employers? These are all key to choosing the right internship.

And according to Smith, individuals shouldn't rule out companies and institutions in a variety of fields. "Facebook Summer Academy works with underserved students from East Palo Alto, Belle Haven, Redwood City and San Francisco, offering them phenomenal opportunities to be exposed to a number of different fields within the company," she says. "The San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation also offers opportunities for students, as do many hospitals and healthcare centers." Students should look for similar opportunities in their local communities.

Author's Note: How Internships Work

While getting my master's degree at the University of California Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, I completed an unconventional, non-newsroom internship at HelloGiggles. During my summer working for the website, I wrote an article about body image and fat shaming that remains the most "viral" of articles I've ever produced: At last count, it had 300,000 page views, 24,000 Facebook likes, 500 Tweets and 135 comments. Sadly, the piece is no longer up on their site, and the analytics are lost forever, but you can read it here!"

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Sources

  • Alvarado, Elizabeth. "The 10 Best Websites for Internships." College Magazine. Jul. 13, 2017 (Sept. 20, 2017). https://www.collegemagazine.com/10-best-websites-finding-internship/#
  • Boyington, Briana. "Understand the Differences Between a Co-op, Internship." U.S. News & World Reports. Mar. 31, 2015 (Sept. 20, 2017). https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/2015/03/31/understand-the-differences-between-a-co-op-internship
  • Haire, Meaghan and Oloffson, Kristi. "A Brief History of Interns. Time. Jul. 30, 2009 (Sept. 20, 2017). http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1913474,00.html
  • Hopkins, Cassidy. "9 Stars Who Were Interns (and Where) Before They Made It Big." Hollywood Reporter. Sep. 25, 2015 (Sept. 20, 2017). http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/lists/celebrites-who-were-interns-before-827266/item/oprah-winfrey-at-cbs-9-827290
  • Howe, Neil. "The Unhappy Rise of The Millennial Intern." Forbes. Apr. 22, 2014 (Sept. 20, 2017). https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2014/04/22/the-unhappy-rise-of-the-millennial-intern/#1a0f44a61328
  • Nagele-Piazza, Lisa. "Employers: Is Your Unpaid Internship Program Legal?" May 1, 2017 (Oct. 11. 2017) https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/legal-and-compliance/employment-law/pages/is-your-unpaid-internship-program-legal.aspx
  • National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). "The 2016 Internship & Co-op Survey Report." May 2016 (Sept. 20, 2017). http://www.naceweb.org/uploadedfiles/content/static-assets/downloads/executive-summary/2016-internship-co-op-survey-executive-summary.pdf
  • Newman, Ricquel. ABC News Producer. Personal correspondence. Sept. 18, 2017.
  • Perlin, Ross. Author. Personal correspondence. Sept. 8, 2017.
  • Shapiro, Emilia Varshavsky. Personal correspondence. Sept. 18, 2017.
  • Smith, Irena. College Admissions Consultant. Personal correspondence. Sept. 11, 2017.
  • U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division. "Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act." Apr. 2010 (Sept. 20, 2017). https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.pdf
  • Zara, Christopher. Are Unpaid Internships Still Legal? Here's Why The Law Is Fuzzier Than Ever. July 18, 2016. (Oct. 11, 2017) https://www.fastcompany.com/3061904/are-unpaid-internships-legal-yet-heres-why-the-law-is-fuzzier-than-ever

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