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Are Colleges and Universities Exploiting Unpaid Interns, Too?

Over the past year, unpaid internships in business have drawn more scrutiny. But some schools — notably, their athletic departments — have sought out unpaid interns, too.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Wars via Wikimedia Commons

 

For students interested in a career in sports management, Arizona State University has what seems like a great opportunity. The school’s athletic program, which boasts of 138 national championships, is advertising for an intern to help with “event staging” for the Sun Devils’ football, basketball, and other games.

There are just a few drawbacks. “This position requires physical labor,” the ad states. “The intern must be able to lift up to 50 pounds and work outdoors in extreme weather conditions.” The work is also completely unpaid.

Over the past year, unpaid internships in journalism, film and government have drawn increasing scrutiny. But it turns out, universities aren’t simply sending off kids to internships in these and other fields. Some schools — notably, their athletic departments — are themselves hiring unpaid interns whose responsibilities can sound quite similar to those of everyday employees.  

Florida Gulf Coast University, for instance, advertises for an unpaid “ Business Operations Intern” whose responsibility would include “processing purchase orders and payment on invoices” and “accurate paperwork filing procedures.”  A university website also advertised for an “Athletics’ Facilities and Operations Intern” whose responsibilities include “supervision of the part time Event Staff to hold them accountable for the jobs they perform.” (The department removed that ad after we contacted them, saying the phrasing was inaccurate. They have not reposted it.) Ads for paid jobs at the university list similar responsibilities.

In order to be legal, most internships must not replace paid positions and must also offer significant educational benefits. But the federal government gives nonprofits, including universities, more leeway. (Federal internship guidelines also don’t apply to work-study arrangements, which have long existed as a way to allow students to work part-time to earn money toward their degrees.)

Whatever the law, internships at universities should have clearly defined academic components, said Messiah College internships director Michael True . Otherwise, universities may not be any better than an employer who doesn’t pay but still benefits from the intern’s work.

True oversees internships at Pennsylvania’s Messiah College, and has for two decades overseen an online discussion forum for college internship coordinators.  Whether or not a student gets academic credit for an internship, said True, it needs to go beyond doing clerical or administrative tasks.

“Internships need to provide opportunities for setting learning goals and reflective activities to help students grow personally and professionally, not to just work,” True said.

A spokesman for Arizona State University athletic department, Doug Tammarro, said students work with the department in many ways, paid and unpaid, but that the department doesn’t have specific guidelines for who counts an “intern.” As for advertising the possibility of performing physical labor as an unpaid intern, Tammarro said they’re careful not to overwork the students, but “if you work in athletics and facilities, you’re probably going to be asked to do some type of physical labor.”

A university spokeswoman said the school’s human resources department does not manage student internship programs, but she was not able to provide additional comment as of the time of publication.

Bruce Banko II, spokesman for Florida Gulf Coast’s athletic department, said his university’s ads don’t give a full picture of interns’ experience. Interns, he said, spend a majority of their time shadowing a paid staff member.

Still, without the help of the department’s interns, Banko said that “some of those would have to be paid positions.”He said working without interns would still be feasible, but “would it make my days much longer? Yes.” As of publication time, a university official said no one was available to comment further on the school’s on-campus internship policies.