Unpaid Internships on the Rise

In a New York Times article published on April 2, Steven Greenhouse looked at the legality and implications of unpaid internships throughout the country. Especially in this less-than-stellar economic season, unpaid internships have been attractive alternatives for employers. Apparently, Stanford University is no exception to this trend.

Lance Choy, director of the Career Development Center (CDC) is quoted in Greenhouse’s article as saying that the number of unpaid internships at Stanford has tripled in the past two years.

“Let me make a clarification,” said Choy. “It’s employers who are doing most of the hiring for unpaid internships, and some of them are illegal. Stanford may hire some, but the majority of positions are with independent employers. As to why employers are hiring unpaid interns – your guess is probably as good as mine. Cost savings? Lack of awareness of labor laws? The recession?”

In accordance with the Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standard’s Act, Stanford University – technically a non-profit organization – is legally permitted to accept assistance from volunteers. As such, Stanford University breaks no law by increasing the number of unpaid internships, as it has been doing over the past years. However, independent organizations or companies affiliated with Stanford, depending on their for-profit or non-profit status, may or may not be legally permitted to offer unpaid internships.

Of course, salary or stipend amount is an important factor for why students work or intern. But just how much?
For a lot of students, finances are important and working for no monetary compensation is not an option. “I receive financial aid for three quarters every year”—said one senior— “and I need to break even [to compensate for summer housing] during the summers.”

The same student remarked that during the year, she works as a tutor for the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). She says her financial package creates an incentive for her to choose a meaningful job like tutoring for the CTL over more lucrative options: “I tutor because I want to give back. Actually, I don’t even know how much I make [as a tutor]!”

Maria del Carmen Barrios ’13 says that she has paid for her own education ever since high school in her home country of Mexico. Because she has always been very responsible with her own expenses, Barrios does not underestimate the value of good pay.

Barrios, who works with the Stanford Drama Department, says that while Stanford University’s starting salary of $11.80/hour is a definite plus – it’s much better than the 16 pesos, or $2.50, average starting wage in Mexico – the personal benefits matter just as much. According to Barrios, working at the drama department offers considerable academic benefits and valuable work experience. “Employers make the position expectations very clear and we are treated well,” says Barrios.

Why would students work for free? Perhaps certain work opportunities offer valuable experience and networking that are rewards in and of themselves. CDC Director Choy surmises that students would work for free in order to enjoy “the experience, professional development, skill development, contacts, or references.”

One sophomore student, who is works as a section leader for the Computer Science department, agrees. “I don’t work for the money.” Rather, she is attracted to the job because of the academic benefit of teaching, the work experience (which is always nice for one’s resume), and the fact that section leading helps to secure employment in the future. “Oftentimes, employers from businesses in computer science were once section leaders themselves. They know the program,” she concluded.

A soon-to-be junior who intends to major in Symbolic Systems says that while she intends to partake in a paid research project at Stanford this summer, she would have accepted the research position had it been unpaid. “As a recently decided SymSys major, my career path has become much more open,” she said. This summer research will be important for her in her process of narrowing down to the specific branch of SymSys she will ultimately pursue. For her, salary size was not the deciding factor.

This fact – that many students are willing to work for no monetary compensation as long as other benefits exist – seems to indicate that students take work opportunities based on a wide range of criteria; money is important, but personal growth, academic experience, and networking are equally attractive in most cases.

Christopher O’Brien ’12 agrees. “Finances are important,” contends O’Brien, who plans to take a paid research position with the Stanford Physics Department. Yet, he realizes that all of the aforementioned benefits mean just as much. Experience, connections, resume, and academic benefit are all important as well, and many students will see past the salary when judging the value of potential internships and employment offers.

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