Erin Alberding, Indiana Wesleyan University senior, worked 18 unpaid hours a week at the South Bend television news station to learn the ins and outs of the TV world. She made unforgettable memories, including the time she and WSBT-TV reporter Ted Land covered a story more than an hour away from the station as their car got a flat tire. Land aired the story live after Alberding helped write, edit and produce the story in only an hour.
According to Alberding, her work was sometimes uneventful and even boring, but the thrill of the newsroom pace kept it exciting. As she ate ice cream with Land and reminisced about their eventful summer together, she knew her internship experience was a treasured part of her journey toward a future career.
But not all students are so fortunate.
Interns across the nation filed lawsuits against Madison Square Garden, NBCUniversal’s Saturday Night Live, and Fox Searchlight Pictures because they believed they were not paid appropriately for the work and hours they dedicated to these companies.
The case against Madison Square Gardens (MSG) is a class action lawsuit of more than 500 individuals. According to Jason Belzer, professor of organizational behavior and sports law at Rutgers University and contributing writer for Forbes.com, these individuals claim they were hired under the pretext of “intern” or “student associate” to complete tasks that would normally be assigned to an employee.
The former students argue they worked in unreasonable conditions and time demands while hoping for full time job offers after finishing the internship, according to Belzer. He said unpaid internships are common in the media and entertainment fields because the experiences and skills gained benefit students more than a monetary compensation would.
The upcoming court decision for this case could have a widespread impact on all college internships.
“Students are saying, ‘You know, I contributed strongly to your bottom line and you did not compensate me in any way,’” Dr. Mark Perry, IWU Division of Communication & Theatre internship coordinator, said of media and entertainment internships. “All of us in this division [are] really kind of keeping an eye on it because what happens if internships in whole go away? I think that’s unfortunate for students.”
The media industry often does not provide the best experience for students, Perry said. Some media companies look for a way to benefit their company rather than investing in the students, as is the case with the MSG lawsuit.
Perry feels a push toward using a pattern similar to the medical teaching model, which benefits all who are involved.
“It could mean that in the future, universities will forge partnerships with specific media outlets,” Perry said.
Perry isn’t sure how or if the model would work for communication students, but the medical teaching model would provide students with hands-on experience outside of the classroom setting and in return benefit media outlets with prestige and low-income workers, comparable to the way hospitals train future employees.
IWU’s DeVoe Division of Business, however, does not see a coming change for its students. Paying student employees for their work is a more common practice in the business world, according to Dr. Harriet Rojas, chair of the business division.
Although the nation’s economic state has made it difficult for students to receive paid internships, Rojas said the experience has great value within the business division as it allows employers to find students they want to hire post-graduation.
For example, accounting majors planning to take the certifying exam authorizing them to work in the field take internships with companies who may hire them after graduation, according to Rojas.
“The major accounting firms will only be hiring individuals who can pass the exam, so the student is demonstrating their knowledge base and work ethic while completing the internship,” Rojas said in an email.
The large firms prefer internships to give both the student and employer an opportunity to test the potential future employment, rather than interviewing at career fairs, according to Rojas.
Not all students, however, have these opportunities. Perry said given the choice of a quality professional experience and a paid internship, students are most likely to choose the monetary reward over experience.
“Ideally, I think it would be great for students if they could pick a place in the country where they want to do an internship and go do it,” Perry said. “But who’s going to pay your living expenses? You’re not getting paid for the internship. Sometimes people … they have friends or family and they can stay with them and then hope they find a part time job.”
Hansen Martin (sr) completed a six-week internship in Ecuador last summer as a part of his Economics and International Community Development double majors. His internship required at least 150 hours to receive three credits and was unpaid, but his experience teaching English was rewarding.
“It’s a different experience being unpaid,” Martin added. “I had to raise funds to go there. I think that’s something that everyone should experience—getting in that humble experience of asking for money to go. But definitely if I did it again, I would go with paid [internships].
“Being in a different country, I experienced a different culture and a different language, and it was really hard and challenging,” Martin said. “So everything I learned from that, and just the memories I have now, and the experience there and the people I know, it’s definitely worth it.”
An annual survey of more than 30,000 interns showed that almost half of all the participants worked without pay at some point in the past three years, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
However, Alberding knew she would have viewed her internship differently had she been paid.
“WSBT graciously took me in knowing I had little TV knowledge and spent countless hours teaching me the ways of the TV world,” she said. “If I had been paid my entire internship, I might have missed out on some of the gems that they taught me on slow days because I would have been ‘working’.”
Although Alberding did not get paid, she knows the experiences gained from completing an internship are essential to a future career.
“If you’re basing your experience on money then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons,” Alberding said. For her and Martin, the skills and knowledge learned were far more beneficial than monetary gain.