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#ProjectIntern Hits the Road to Capture College Intern Stories

We want to make the conversation about internships (more) personal. So our Kickstarter-funded intern has hit the road to capture intern stories around the country.

Casey McDermott, ProPublica intern and Penn State journalism alum. The one word she'd use to describe her internship covering internships is "meta."

Three months ago, ProPublica launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise enough money to hire an intern to travel the country and document stories of the emerging intern economy.

Well, they succeeded – and now #ProjectIntern is hitting the road.

I’m Casey McDermott, and this week I am setting off on that cross-country trip to collect interns’ stories. (Meta, I know.)

Our goal here is pretty simple: We want to make the conversation about internships (more) personal.

The national dialogue about internships often focuses on the big picture: important discussions of ethics and lawsuits. What’s missing, though, is a sense of the intern experience from the people who actually take on these positions. By some estimates, that’s anywhere from half a million to one million interns every year. What do interns really do? When are they being paid for their work? What’s the financial or educational payoff? What kinds of sacrifices do interns make, if any, to take on these positions?

Over the next three months, I’ll travel to college campuses around the country to bring a firsthand perspective to the internship issue (check out our itinerary here).

You’ll be able to find stories from the interns I meet on our new Tumblr — The Intern Economy — along with perspectives from college internship coordinators, academic experts and employers.

We’re especially interested in exploring how unpaid internships have proliferated in some industries.

It’s worth noting that this issue is personal for me, too. I just graduated with journalism and sociology degrees from Penn State in May, and I’ve held four internships including this one. Some paid well, and others provided no more than a transportation stipend. Most of my friends have also been interns — paid, for academic credit, unpaid or some combination of the three. Some of my peers view internships as a valuable investment that can lead to future job opportunities — even if they’re not paid much at the time. And some have made unpaid or stipend-based positions work by living at home, or working part-time jobs.

The internship issue affects students differently depending on their major, their financial situation, their career goals and more. According to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, students who completed an unpaid internship were only slightly better situated for future employment than those who had no internship: 37 percent of unpaid interns received at least one job offer, compared to 35.2 percent for non-interns. (Paid interns fared the best, with about 63 percent receiving at least one job offer.) The same survey also showed that paid interns often earned more as new employees, with median starting salaries of $51,930 versus $35,721 for those with unpaid internships, and $37,087 for those with no internship experience at all. 

An internship is a critical entry point into the workforce, and access, or lack thereof, to such opportunities can have lasting consequences for students. That’s one reason we’re focusing on college campuses — an important intersection between prospective interns and the larger intern economy — trying to document the implications of the “experiential learning” students are doing, or aren’t able to do, while they’re in college.

Check our itinerary to see if we’re coming to your school, and be sure to say hello or share your own intern story by tagging #ProjectIntern on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Stay tuned for more dispatches soon!

For more from our internships investigation, see our latest report on Northwestern's journalism program offering students internships without paychecks, or sign up to help us calculate the cost of college internships

I did an internship in a California State Senators office way back in the 70’s.  My college was one of the first in the country, at least in my department, to strongly encourage students to do internships. (It later became a requirement.) I got no money, nor did I expect it.  What I did get was valuable experience in how a representative’s office works and a peek into the ‘behind the scenes’ of the legislative process.  Unfortunately it didn’t turn into any job, not for lack of trying though.

If you want the internship nightmare, then I’m the guy for you. The film industry is run on the blood of interns. I took an internship with a documentary company and got tons of hands on experience. This was to be my last (of four internships) to graduate from college. Unfortunately, the company was not on an approved list yet, at my college. So, I had to jump through countless bureaucratic hoops to try and get the company added so I could graduate. Well, I quickly rose to a very poorly paid camera operating position in the company, and thought to myself, “spend time doing this, or spend even more time jumping through hoops?” Well, I spent the time working, and as a result didn’t finish college. Sadly the project which I not only filmed, but now also wrote into a 12 episode TV series has yet to go anywhere. And lo and behold, now I have no money and no work and no college degree. This is really only 1/3 of the story. There is still so much more to tell of my time with that company. A company that literally operates on interns.

Joan Lawrence-Bauer

Oct. 3, 2013, 5:14 a.m.

I supervise college interns at a non-profit housing agency.  They are not paid but their out of pocket expenses are covered.  Each intern determines his or her own schedule so they can work around other life needs without stress.  Each is asked to develop a project about which they are passionate that can also help in some way to build homes, strengthen communities and better people’s lives.  They get extensive orientation, training and support and an opportunity to do meaningful work that is important to them.  At the end, we help them find placements in jobs, graduate programs or internships elsewhere that will advance their personal goals. I am still mentoring people in careers that started more than 20 years ago.  So while you’re measuring the cost of internships, I hope you also measure the benefits - to the interns and to society at large!

To expand a little further: I ended up producing at that company. Producing for a miserable $500 a week. In exchange the owner of the company allowed me to stay at her house. She also promised that she would give me a percentage of the company. That percentage never came to fruition. But meanwhile I worked 80 hour work weeks without question, in an effort to get our work to succeed, including working with the Canadian Film Company to try and secure funding, flying back and forth from here to there. My relationship with the company finally ended when the lady got the nerve to ask me to pay rent! (Mind you I was already cooking organic meals in the home and sharing with her. Mind you I was getting only $500 per week.)

Joan Lawrence-Bauer

Oct. 3, 2013, 7:42 a.m.

D - There was probably a reason the company was not on the school’s approved list of internships (red flag there) and when a company is using your skills to help enhance your education, they should also be encouraging you and supporting you in graduating (another red flag).
Then if I read this correctly, you chose to accept a job for $500 a week and work 80 hours a week.  That’s not an internship issue it’s a labor relations or unfair labor practices issue.  While there are surely bad internship stories out there, I would hate to see the good internships tarred with the bad brush of negative experiences like yours.

Do yourself a favor and STOP using the word “meta.” It’s annoying.

Carol Anderson

Oct. 4, 2013, 11:09 a.m.

It’s not just college students.

I’m an RN and the hospital where I work just hire some new nurses as ‘interns.’ They get a ‘stipend’ (they would not say how much but I think it averaged about $13.00 and hour), paid monthly, and at the end of 3 months can be considered for hire. I don’t know if they then have to wait another 3 months for health benefits.

I was shocked when I heard of this new type of employment. I’ve never seen anything like it in my 20 years of nursing. Can you imagine graduating with a 4 year degree in nursing just to work for a pittance in your first job.

The new-hires told me they were “just glad to get a paid internship”, as though this is the norm in the industry.

Interns should at least be paid a minimum wage, that is what ‘minimum wage’ means. Unpaid internships are nothing more than slave labor and should be reported to Human Trafficking Division of FBI and PolarisProject.org.

HR will dangle a carrot of possible future paid work in front of you, but never do when they can just go find another intern the following semester NOT TO PAY.  However, karma gets them as those companies who lack integrity usually end up folding because their business practice of taking advantage of others just doesn’t stop w/interns. Besides the personnel bridge burning, they get a reputation for being cheap and eventually no one wants to do biz w/them.

Additionally, don’t be fooled by a companies reputation based on past achievements, it could be a facade to how it’s run today. A thorough research will save you lots of headaches later. Throwing yourself into the proverbial fire on a job is one thing, however, interns become the scapegoat when they get pushed in or when no one is there to help them out. Mistakes can lead to success when they are of your own making and someone is there to support you with a suggestion.

I agree that on hands real world experience is far more valuable than class work, but if you start developing bad habits from a poor company then you’ve done a disservice to all your class prep work.

As a P.S. to Mr. D., the film/video biz has a long history of labor abuse, both non-union and union work, unpaid interns aren’t the half of of it.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Internships

Internships

The number of internships in the United States has ballooned over the past few decades. But oversight and legal protection for unpaid interns hasn't kept up.

The Story So Far

The number of internships in the United States has ballooned over the past few decades. But oversight and legal protection for interns hasn’t kept up. We’re investigating companies that may be violating labor laws by employing unpaid workers, schools’ role in the issue and how it’s affecting American workers.

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