Eye On Interns

Posted on Jun 1, 2011 :: Features
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Feds restate rules

The U.S. government is paying more attention these days to a rite of passage for many college students – an internship, especially those that go unpaid.

This past spring, the U.S. Labor Department reiterated its rules regarding unpaid internships under the Fair Labor Standards Act and pledged to crack down on for-profit companies that choose not to pay their interns. The move comes after officials in Oregon and California investigated and fined several employers who didn’t follow federal guidelines regarding unpaid internships.

But while the federal government re-focuses its attention on unpaid internships, many businesses aren’t too worried. A nationwide survey by Michael True, director of the internship center at Messiah College in Grantham, Penn., found that 87 percent of U.S. colleges and universities have not heard from employers concerned about their internship opportunities.

“We’re fortunate in the Fox Valley since most employers do pay their interns here,” says Jessie Pondell, internship director for the College of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. “That’s a good thing since when it comes to unpaid internships, there’s a socio-economic divide created since many students cannot afford to not be paid and it would only allow some people to take advantage of those opportunities and get ahead in the job market.”

At UW-Oshkosh’s College of Business, 71 percent of spring internships were paid. Of those internships that went unpaid, the majority were with non-profit organizations, which are exempt from the federal rules.

And while there are strict federal standards in place, Jim Miron, an attorney at Menn Law Firm in Appleton, says employers are often not challenged on the legality of their unpaid internships.

“Most companies really view internships as extended interviews. In the Fox Valley, most internships are paid, so the newly-released fact sheet hasn’t caused too much worry,” he says.

And besides, Pondell wonders what college student would want to begin his or her career by suing an employer? “That’s not a great way to start out. I do tell students when they come to me and are excited about an internship that’s unpaid about the federal rules, but it’s really not an issue. I know some industries – such as entertainment – that rely heavily on unpaid interns are concerned, but this is something we’ve all been working with for awhile,” she says.

With the majority of area private companies paying their interns, businesses are particular about who they bring on board.

At Schenck SC, an accounting firm with several Northeast Wisconsin branches, paid interns are brought on every tax season to help with returns and other projects, says HR supervisor Rebecca Stanonik. Some interns are part time, while others are full time, she adds.

We really look at internships as a four-month interview,” Stanonik says. “It gives us an opportunity to learn what these students have to offer and they get an opportunity to learn about us a little bit more too.”

Schenck works with several colleges, including UW-Oshkosh, to help fill its intern ranks.

“Student” is a key word, Pondell says. With the economic slowdown, the national media has featured stories about unemployed adults going after internships normally filled by those in college. That’s not something Pondell has seen in the New North.

“The companies we work with are very specific – they want a student or maybe someone who just graduated for a summer internship,” she says. “Employers are really looking to form a relationship with an intern and maybe even keep them on after they graduate.”

Internships are a great way for an employer to “test drive” a worker, says Abby Gutowski, the PR manager at the Weidert Group in Appleton who supervises the company’s intern. “It takes awhile to train an intern so we like to have them for at least a semester, but a year is ideal. Do you want to train someone and just when they’re ready to roll, have them move on?” she says.

Pondell estimates most interns are paid between $8 and $12 per hour in the Fox Valley, but she says a student might not necessarily take an internship just because it pays a little more than another job. “Students are smart. They are looking for the best experience and if one job is $8 and the other is $10, but the $8 job looks better they’ll go with that. They know they need to get the most from this opportunity,” she says.