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Paying interns a difficult topic to confront

Filed by KOSU News in Feature, Public Insight Network.
September 6, 2013

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Earlier this summer, interns went to court. The target was media companies – from NBC Universal to Hearst. They brought the lawsuits over pay – with many working for college credit and little else, they argued Saturday Night Live, the producers of the movie the Black Swan, and the publishers of Conde Nast were breaking federal law. While little has emerged in Oklahoma, I used the Public Insight Network to get a sense of things on the ground here.

“It’s such a leg up especially in the creative industries, to have that experience and to be able to network, and to be able to figure out how to do what you’re going to be doing after you graduate.”

Brian Winkeler is the creative director and owner of Robot House Creative. They do advertising and branding campaigns for businesses, restaurants, bars, and more. But he says his unpaid internship put him in this position.

“It’s not a simple thing you know? It’s a little bit sticky. I personally have hugely benefitted from the way things are, and so I think there’s a lot to be said for that.”

That sticky part? The federal law on unpaid interns says that the employer can get no immediate benefit from the intern, and they don’t do any of the work of regular employees, as well as four other requirements. Matt Trotter interned for one of the top TV stations in LA, plus a public relations firm. No pay in LA, while the PR firm did give a stipend.

“Its kinda tough to balance that. I think if an intern is going to be doing the sort of work someone would normally be paid for, you should be paying the intern or you should be hiring someone.”

Trotter now works for KWGS in Tulsa. Now the balance only needs to happen for companies that are for profit. At many of the state’s largest companies, interns at paid. That includes Devon Energy, Chesapeake, OG & E, Sonic and the Bank of Oklahoma. Hobby Lobby says they don’t hire interns. Nationwide, experts estimate just a third of interns are paid.

In general, non profits are exempt from paying interns.  And that’s where we arrive at KOSU. We have unpaid interns here, like Victoria Mooers, who just wrapped up her work before heading back to the University of Chicago.

“I feel like in a lot of situations, it’s hard to replace a paid person. Because a person that’s paid ideally has background in what they’re doing. An intern probably isn’t going to be nearly as productive as a paid person.”


“They are sort of a job audition. If that student is there and is doing the kind of work that they really want them to do, and they can see what kind of work they do, that’s probably going to lead to a job for them once they get out. And in that case, maybe it’s a good investment of time.”

As a coordinator in Oklahoma State’s LASSO Center, Priscilla Gerfen helps students through schooling. But she also had an internship herself.

“I definitely saw the behind the scenes support that student affairs professionals provided to student organizations. And I also got to understand why they made some decisions that students didn’t like.”

Not only can internships provide the skills needed going forward, but also the inside information that is hard to grasp looking from the outside in. Even though Victoria wasn’t paid by KOSU, when asked whether she would do this all again.

“I would, I would definitely. It’s been really, really, worth it.”

One Response to “Paying interns a difficult topic to confront”

  1. Jimmy Harris says:

    The biggest problem with an unpaid internship is that it's only available to students that come from wealthy enough families to support them during their internship. When I was in college, I would have loved to participated in an internship, which probably would have lead to a better job right out of college, and perhaps a better career path. However, I had to maintain at least a low wage job to make up for the costs that scholarships, grants, and loans didn't cover.

    Now if a company really wants to offer interns the experience they need and prove that they do not actually profit off the labor of an intern, then it would make no difference from the companies perspective to rotate the intern position daily with all of the applicants. Most students could afford to take a day or two off to participate in a program like that, however, taking an entire summer off without pay is usually only an option for the well-to-do.

    And if the argument is made that the student receives valuable experience in exchange for their labor, then why not offer this experience to anyone willing to pay for it? Why not capitalize on this situation and start companies who's business model is to give students the internship experience in exchange for money?

    Furthermore, minimum wage isn't very high. If a company isn't making enough money to pay an intern minimum wage, then they probably don't know enough about the business they're in to offer an intern any meaningful experience, and probably won't be in business much longer. Otherwise they're just taking advantage of an antiquated system. Even a barista can expect to get paid.

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