Defining Internships: A Learning Experience. Not Free Labor.
Rutgers and labor officials offer the do's and don'ts for employers and students
One New Jersey college student accepted an internship believing that she would learn what it was like to work in the environmental sciences field.
But instead she became an extreme example of what an internship should not be. Her experience was confined to working out of her dorm room updating the firm’s Facebook page and Twitter feed.
“That might have been a great thing to make money, but she wasn’t getting paid for it. She wasn’t getting exposed to mentoring by the people working in the industry that she is trying to learn about,’’ said John Warner, of the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor, who recently spoke at a Rutgers University Career Services Employer Appreciation Breakfast.
In the last three years, the Department of Labor has stepped up efforts to educate students and employers about what an internship should be, when it’s okay not to pay, and when the work should be paid. The department has focused its efforts on talking to colleges and universities in hopes that the message will be passed along as students secure internships.
Since the economy soured, the labor department became concerned that some interns were being misused. It was part of an overall concern that some employers were trying to skirt the rules by classifying workers as contractors or consultants, instead of employees, said Warner, a Rutgers alumnus..
“Internships normally afford students an opportunity to learn in greater depth and detail some aspect of the profession they are studying,” he said. “It should not be an opportunity for a company to take advantage of free labor.”
At Rutgers, the message is getting across. Career Services updated its website following Warner’s talk to clarify what it recognizes as an internship, and describe what doesn’t fit the bill under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.
Career Services also works with employers to explain what makes a valid and successful internship, said Director Richard White.
“Internships involve a level of challenge, of independence, of problem solving and project management,’’ White said. “It is not making coffee and running out for bagels.’’
Prudential, which accepts 25-30 Rutgers students each year through its internship program, is held up as an example of a company that gets its right.
Annika Huq, a senior from Edison who is graduating from Rutgers Business School-Newark and New Brunswick in December, spent last summer as a Prudential intern.
She worked in project management even though she wanted to pursue a career in marketing. Huq spent the summer using the skills she learned in class to create an Access database and help to track the progress of projects.
Through Prudential’s internship “Lunch and Learn” program, Huq met a marketing vice president in the company’s retirement division and kept in touch. She asked questions about the company’s marketing campaign and expressed interest in any job openings.
Huq is now debating between two job offers from the company – one in her preferred field of marketing and one in project management. “You learn about the company itself and you learn about the corporate culture and you get your foot in the door for different fields you might not have known about otherwise,’’ she said.
Providing students with a learning experience is one of the principles that guides Prudential’s internship program, said Campus Recruiter Marta Pateiro, a 2007 Rutgers graduate. "We look at our interns not just as summer help – get me tea, coffee water, and file,’’ she said. “They are going to fill a job that is a real-life entry level role.’’
Tammy Samuels, assistant director of Internships at Rutgers, stressed the value of pursuing an internship.
“It makes students more competitive as candidates and it helps them develop real-world experience in terms of time management, working in a team, working with a supervisor, following tasks, and producing under deadlines,’’ Samuels said.
“Students can’t afford to forgo an internship before graduation,’’ Samuels said. “I think it’s critical for their professional development.’’