In Washington, Unpaid Internships Still Popular

Posted March 24, 2010 at 4:09pm

Washington’s allure as a bastion of coveted jobs in government, nonprofit work and lobbying continues to attract ambitious college students seeking to lay the foundation for a career.

Many of them take the first step in establishing these careers through unpaid internships. Rather than simply bolstering a résumé, such internships have increasingly become almost a prerequisite for finding a first job.

“It’s more common than ever that in an economic downturn or in a competitive market, as Washington has become, that an internship is pretty much expected of most people who are expecting a Washington-type position,” said Anne Scammon, director of career learning and experience at George Washington University’s career center.

For students intent on finding work, an unpaid internship is a necessary sacrifice, one that helps build contacts and gain invaluable workplace experience. But some observers are wary of how a marketplace in which uncompensated labor has become a near-ubiquitous feature might discriminate against students unable to sustain the financial burden of working for no pay.

The Economic Policy Institute has just released a paper exploring this topic. The paper notes that, largely as a result of steadily increasing college enrollment that has created an ever-larger cohort of college graduates vying for jobs, internships “are no longer an added bonus for students, but now a standard component of the college experience.” According to the report’s authors, this trend has sharpened inequities between wealthier students and those with financial constraints, such as substantial debt, that preclude the possibility of an unpaid internship.

“What the general trends would suggest is low-income students get shut out of these opportunities,” said Alexander Hertel-
Fernandez, a researcher who worked on the paper. “It hinders the inclusiveness and the representativeness of our democracy, especially when it comes to jobs in Congress and these jobs on Capitol Hill.”

And it’s not only students who are finding themselves vying for unpaid internships. Willy Franzen, the founder of the career advice Web site One Day, One Job, voiced his concern about the implications of “valuing yourself at zero dollars an hour,” but he noted that internships in fields such as politics and nonprofits often impart specific skills not attainable elsewhere. He said the pool of internship-seekers has expanded beyond its traditional foundation of enrolled college students.

“I think what we’re seeing is an increased willingness of people who have already graduated college to take unpaid internships, and to me that’s the really interesting trend,” he said.

Hertel-Fernandez said that a scarcity of jobs in the current economic climate has played a large role in thickening the ranks of people seeking internships and has strengthened a trend that makes obtaining an internship almost compulsory.

“This is a situation that is exacerbated by the recession which has created this really tight labor market where people are competing for these unpaid positions, and maybe if you’re not willing to work for very low stipends or even no compensation there are scores of other people who would be willing to do that,” he said.

Scammon noted that many universities have created “internship funds” that offer stipends to support students working at unpaid internships. However, the Economic Policy Institute report notes that such grants are typically available at the more expensive, elite institutions, and Hertel-Fernandez said that such funding is “the first casualty in budget cutbacks.”

As competition for internships has increased, an industry has grown around helping students find them. While Scammon said George Washington students have taken on internships throughout the 25 years she has worked at the university, she said the proliferation of private institutes that charge a “rather extraordinary fee” to facilitate the process is a new phenomenon.

Businesses such as the Washington Internship Program, the Washington Internship Institute and the Fund for American Studies offer comprehensive programs that include coursework and placement in internships around Washington. Detractors say these programs disproportionately favor wealthy students, while those who administer them counter that increased interest in the programs reflects young people’s willingness to do what they must in a dismal job market.

Financial aid is available for some students — Mary Ryan, president of the Washington Internship Institute, estimates that at least 25 percent of the program’s students receive some sort of financial aid. She compared internship placement programs to colleges: Both are investments. Extending the parallel, the majority of interns at the Washington Internship Institute receive academic credit.

“The organizations are similar to a college or a university, in that you choose a college or a university because you want a certain major, or a certain coursework, you’re getting service, you’re getting knowledge,” Ryan said. “And then students at the same time will choose an internship program because the program is reputable, provides coursework, provides credit.”

Joseph Starrs, who directs the Fund for American Studies’ Institute on Political Journalism, estimated a 35 percent increase in applications for the summer internship program, which requires students to enroll in Georgetown and receive course credit. Starrs said participants in the program are undeterred by the cost, and noted a “cross-section of socioeconomic status” among them.

“With the recession, a lot of students need to make money during the summer, and since most internships in D.C. in the summer are unpaid you would think that would be a problem, but most students are biting the bullet because they consider it to be an investment in their future,” he said. “It is definitely tougher on students with lower incomes or who have a bigger financial debt, but … somehow the students who have financial challenges are doing whatever they need to do — taking out loans, deferring work, they’re making it happen.”