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New experience: Interns pay to work

For-profits finding flood of candidates in poor job market

Lisa Virgen, a Boston University student, has no regrets about the time she spent as an unpaid State House intern. Lisa Virgen, a Boston University student, has no regrets about the time she spent as an unpaid State House intern. (Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)
By Bella English
Globe Staff / May 31, 2010

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Throughout her senior year at Boston College, Brynn Merritt worked part time at Entercom Boston, which owns four radio stations, including WEEI and WRKO. She blogged, called businesses to solicit merchandise for WEEI’s website, produced ad displays, and sent newsletter e-mail blasts.

For all of this, she was paid nothing.

“I did the same amount of work as a lot of people getting paid did,’’ says Merritt, 22, who graduated this spring. But she’s not complaining; in fact, she feels lucky. “I learned a ton,’’ says Merritt, who got a course credit for the internship. “I feel I could go into the business right now.’’

Unpaid internships have long been offered by nonprofits, but for-profit businesses are increasingly taking advantage of the number of students who, in a tight job market, are willing to forgo a paycheck for practical experience.

And there’s a new twist on the paid internship — where the intern actually pays for the job via online auctions on websites such as charitybuzz.com. The Huffington Post recently auctioned off an internship, for charity, for $9,000. A six-week internship — half of it with Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways, and half with hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons — went for $85,000, to benefit Simmons’s charity, Rush Philanthropic.

The proliferation of unpaid internships at corporations, law firms, media outlets, and other businesses is stirring debate over whether the firms are trying to skirt federal labor laws, and some states are investigating whether employers are breaking minimum wage laws. Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office said Massachusetts has not had any complaints or investigations.

In fact, Coakley’s office, too, uses unpaid interns. Many of them, her office says, receive either school credit or funding from a law school, grant, or fellowship. Unpaid internships in the public sector and with charitable nonprofits are generally permissible, since any individual can volunteer for such causes.

Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, private employers must pay interns unless six criteria are met: The internship must be educational and for the benefit of the intern; the intern cannot displace regular employees; the employer must derive “no immediate advantage’’ from the activities of the intern; the intern isn’t necessarily entitled to a job at the end; and both the employer and intern understand the position is unpaid.

Nancy Snyder, president of Commonwealth Corp., which administers youth employment programs for the state Office of Labor and Workforce Development, says the recession has created brisk competition for unpaid internships. Last summer was the worst period of unemployment for those 16 to 21 since records began to be kept after World War II, and this summer also will be challenging, she says.

“I think in part because it’s gotten more difficult to find paid work, young people are looking for the [unpaid] experience,’’ Snyder says. “Recently there’s been a lot more effort to make sure for-profit companies know what they can and can’t do. I think for-profits need to be very careful about this.’’

At Boston University, students in some departments are required to do internships and receive course credit, but others whose majors don’t require them don’t get credit. Still, they’re highly competitive, says Kimberly Delgizzo, director of career services. Students have told her that some companies that used to pay interns no longer do. But she hears few complaints. “Students are appreciative of the opportunity to get hands-on experience,’’ she says.

Lisa Virgen is one. Last semester, the BU political science major worked half a day a week for Representative Ruth Balser and was not paid. She answered phones for the Newton Democrat, entered constituent questions and concerns into a database, and sat in on hearings.

“Did I feel challenged? No,’’ says Virgen, who is from El Paso, Texas. “But to me it was an amazing experience just to be at the State House working.’’

This summer she has three paying jobs, including working in the BU Law School office. “It feels amazing to get paid,’’ Virgen says. Next fall she’s applying for a 20-hour-a-week unpaid internship at a nonprofit.

Though Virgen doesn’t mind unpaid internships, some of her friends do. “My roommate was at a PR firm that had a lot of interns. She said most of them do most of the work and don’t even get paid,’’ Virgen says. “It’s like getting exploited, especially with students so desperate for any job experience.’’

Still, few complain, out of fear of hurting their job search. One Emerson College student took an unpaid internship at a publishing company last summer. She worked 20 hours a week, packing and shipping books, but when the company laid off employees, she was assigned to create press releases, galley letters, and press packets. Though the company might be afoul of the law, the student says the internship turned out to be relevant and essential for her résumé.

Christine Caswell McCarron, who directs the internship program for the Boston College Communication Department, says 99 percent of the communication majors interning are in unpaid, academic-credit jobs. “They see the internship as an extension of their major,’’ she says.

She offers employers guidelines for “a good internship,’’ asking them to keep busy work and clerical tasks to a minimum. “We ask that they mentor our students, coach them, and allow them to participate in meetings and projects.’’

WCVB-TV (Channel 5) does not pay its interns — who get course credit — except for two summer positions in honor of former anchor Natalie Jacobson and former news director Jim Thistle. Still, the station is inundated with applications.

“They are getting good experience, making connections, learning what goes on in a newsroom,’’ says WCVB’s internship coordinator, Linda Walsh. “It’s win-win, because we need them.’’

Financially strapped nonprofits especially need the free labor. The New England Wildlife Center in Weymouth had 75 applicants for 25 unpaid internships this summer. “The economy has decimated us,’’ says executive director Katrina Bergman-Banagis. “If we had to pay interns, we’d be out of business.’’

Zach Beresin, 23, a Beloit College graduate from Acton, was an intern at the wildlife center last summer before it hired him on in the fall. “It was amazing,’’ he says. “You get to work with the vet a lot and be involved in anything from surgery to giving meds, taking blood, doing X-rays or wing wraps on birds.’’

Wanting experience with large animals, he recently left the center — to take an unpaid internship at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.