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Transcript: How Do Unpaid Internships Impact Industry?

Earlier this week, David Dennis, an alum of Northwestern’s graduate school of journalism, argued in the Guardian that unpaid internships have changed the news industry for the worse.

Since students from low- and middle-class backgrounds often don’t have the means to accept unpaid internships, Dennis wrote, their chances of landing a job decrease. Subsequently, their perspectives are absent from news coverage. And that, Dennis wrote, “alienates a large portion of the American population.”

But it’s not just news companies offering unpaid internships, which made us wonder – how has the rise in internships (and especially unpaid internships) changed industries in the United States? What options are available to students who can’t afford unpaid internships? What role have schools played in promoting unpaid internships?

Writer David Dennis (@DavidDTSS), Guardian U.S. finance columnist Helaine Olen (@helaineolen) and Gina Neff Ph.D. (@ginasue), an associate professor at the University of Washington, joined the ProPublica and Guardian US communities Friday, May 31 for a discussion on how unpaid internships are impacting industry. Some key takeaways:

Not only are internships becoming a preqrequisite to landing a job, many universities and well-off suburban and private high schools are also now requiring students complete internships. However, systems for ensuring these internships are for the students' educational benefit are spotty. Neff noted that the University of Washington has a "great" legislative reporting internship that involves close faculty mentoring. However, her research found fewer than 10% of journalism and communications departments in the U.S. offered that level of engagement. 

A good mentor may be key to a good internship. Several participants that mentorship, from both faculty and companies, was the most valuable part of their internship. "Both in showing what a professionaly should really be like, and also for providing recommendations and networking," said commenter Jess. 

No one is really tracking the economic impact of unpaid internships.  "I have a friend in PR that went through 2 rounds of interviews for a job before being told they'd decided to split the position's work between two interns instead of hiring someone," said commenter Jess. And though interns are often doing the work of paid employees, it's unclear what that effect has been on the economy. A few academic studies have been done, but Neff noted that interns aren't considered part of the labor force by the Bureau of labor Statistics. That means they're not tracked.


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