Monday debate: The value of internships

Here at the School of Journalism & Mass Communication we’ve long had an internship course, J 697, that students can take for one credit to pair an academic experience with an outside work experience at a for-profit or non-profit media organization.  Many of our faculty serve as mentors for this course; my own version of J 697, perhaps unsurprisingly, involves a set of online collaboration experiences using weblogs, wikis, and shared reading repositories. We’re even moving forward on several projects to provide targeted scholarships to internship students to defray the cost of the academic credit.

The role of internship experiences as a useful supplement to academic training in a professional field like mass communication might seem obvious.  But increasingly the College of Letters and Science is looking at the way outside corporate and community internships of all sorts can productively complement a wide range of different majors.  One 2008 study found that 50% of all US graduating college seniors have had internship experience, so it’s clearly a trend that reaches beyond professional departments.  I’ve been fortunate to have been involved in a pilot project with the L&S Career Services office to offer a cross-college internship course, modeled on our own J 697, under the INTER-LS 400 course listing.  Last summer we had seventeen students participate in placements from all over the nation at a wide variety of organizations, from Merrill Lynch to the Milwaukee Brewers.  We’re running the course again this summer (sign up now!).

Delivering fair and useful internships can be tricky in times of tight labor markets, however.  A recent New York Times article on the subject pointed out that employers are treading carefully in order to stay within the bounds of labor law, especially with unpaid internships at for-profit organizations:

With job openings scarce for young people, the number of unpaid internships has climbed in recent years, leading federal and state regulators to worry that more employers are illegally using such internships for free labor.

Convinced that many unpaid internships violate minimum wage laws, officials in Oregon, California and other states have begun investigations and fined employers. Last year, M. Patricia Smith, then New York’s labor commissioner, ordered investigations into several firms’ internships. Now, as the federal Labor Department’s top law enforcement official, she and the wage and hour division are stepping up enforcement nationwide.

Many regulators say that violations are widespread, but that it is unusually hard to mount a major enforcement effort because interns are often afraid to file complaints. Many fear they will become known as troublemakers in their chosen field, endangering their chances with a potential future employer.

The Labor Department says it is cracking down on firms that fail to pay interns properly and expanding efforts to educate companies, colleges and students on the law regarding internships.

“If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,” said Nancy J. Leppink, the acting director of the department’s wage and hour division.

Rules for unpaid interning with non-profit organizations are different, and the situation remains in flux.  (Read the full article for more info.)  But for today’s Monday debate I wanted to ask: How do you think internships should fit into a journalism & mass communication education?  Into a general arts and sciences education?  Into the mass communication industry itself?