Student Loan: What You Need to Know About Searching for Interns

January 1, 2015

[getty/matt herring]
[getty/matt herring]

Talk to college students studying communications these days — if you can get their attention away from Instagram or Yik Yak — and a likely topic of conversation will be internships. Just as the students are thinking about internships, so are the businesses that offer vital on-the-job instruction.

As a PR professor at Rider University and the internship coordinator for the Department of Communication and Journalism, I see both interested parties navigating a changing landscape. Often, it’s a professor who has to connect these two groups traveling on separate paths that lead to the same ending.

Students, now with ample opportunities to intern with agencies of all sizes, want to know how to find the best available options. Employers, now flush with legal concerns, want to know how to find the best available students.

Earlier this year, Condé Nast settled a class action suit brought by former interns who claimed improper compensation, while in late October NBCUniversal did likewise to the tune of $6.4 million with past interns who disputed the company classifying them as non-employees.

If these mega media giants with their deep rosters of lawyers are having trouble determining when a student goes from being an intern to an unpaid professional, then it’s an even bigger concern for communication firms that lack the same legal guidance.

There is so much current legal uncertainty about the role of interns that some corporations are shuttering their programs. Others, though, are still aggressively seeking out interns; in particular, entrepreneurs or start-ups are canvassing colleges for would-be apprentices.

A successful internship is a mutually beneficial proposition — businesses get some fresh ideas and talent to help invigorate operations, while students receive training and résumé scaffolding.

Many of you reading these words probably got your start in the business by working as an intern.

Regardless of the size of the business, in the wake of lawsuits, a review of its internship program should be conducted.

To avoid any legal snafus, a business must emphasize that interns are serving in an actual learning environment — students are trained, but don’t displace paid employees.

Besides running afoul of federal laws, those looking to attract interns should also revisit their search process. There are now more college students than in recent years, and bountiful opportunities for them to choose from.

Businesses can no longer expect hungry interns to flock to them as they did in the past.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when searching for interns:

Think back to ECON 101.

Just as college students are learning about the basics of supply and demand, organizations searching for interns should call on their familiarity of capitalistic principles.

Do you want to attract the best interns with the most skills and the greatest professional potential? Then resist offering an unpaid internship — because that’s the way it’s always been done — and provide students with some form of compensation.

Based on media coverage of the high-profile lawsuits, students are now empowered to expect internships to be paid experiences, not just for academic credit. I frequently advise organizations on their search for college interns, and my first suggestion is to offer compensation (contracted salary, per hour, per diem, travel/food reimbursement).

From the students’ perspectives, the internship marketplace is saturated. It’s not just the Madison Avenue types offering them. Now there is an abundance of boutique firms and nonprofits giving students the opportunity for experiential learning. As a result, students are increasingly more selective about their final destinations.

In fact, I even suggest to my students to take internships at smaller firms where they will have a better opportunity to make an impact as compared to a “sexier” media conglomerate.

As with any population, there are varying degrees of talented students searching for internships. To land the best students who have the most options and the ability to contribute, a business should stand out by offering compensation.

Besides making the company more attractive to current and future interns, offering any level of compensation — think about how far train fare goes on a college student’s budget — will create a more motivating environment. 

Make the right call.

Often, businesses that are looking for “worker bees” or that are “desperate for interns” contact me. Desperate for worker bees also sounds like a plea for free labor that places students in an environment with little to no educational experience, and I am hesitant to even post these inquiries.

To make a good impression with the academic adviser who often serves as a gatekeeper, be specific with the profile of a student who would make the best fit. When creating a job/internship description, focus on necessary qualifications such as major, language skills and technical skills (Web and graphic design). With that information available, the adviser can better pinpoint qualified candidates for the position and be comfortable that providers will not take advantage of students while they are out of the classroom.

Be flexible.

Any business demanding that interns work on a specified day and time will likely have few applicants. Remember, a college student’s top priority is taking enough classes, and the required ones, to graduate on time. Internships that offer little flexibility regarding days and times are less than desirable.

Know the academic calendar.

Life in academia doesn’t work the same way as in the real world. Generally, the fall semester lasts from September through December, with spring going from January to May. If you want a student for the fall, then start inquiring around April through the beginning stages of the summer. For spring interns, start the search process in October through November.

Summer internships offer more leeway in terms of registration, but that is the time when many college students work to help pay tuition, so remember the incentive that compensation provides.



Experience Needed: College Students Seek Internships

Even as employers place more value on real-world work experience, the number of recent college graduates who’ve had an internship relevant to their studies has risen only slightly from the previous generation.

As The Wall Street Journal reported on Nov. 13, in a Gallup-Purdue survey of 30,000 students who graduated between 2010 and 2014, just 35 percent had worked in an internship or job related to their field of study — only 4 percent more than the class of 1990.

Employers now place nearly twice as much weight on graduates’ work experience as compared to their academic credentials, according to a 2012 survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

But for young people today, professional workplace experience is hard to come by. Underemployment among recent graduates has been stuck at above 40 percent since the recession.

Some universities are trying to help by making internships an integral part of their curriculum. For example, Wake Forest University and the University of Vermont have moved their career-services offices to more prominent locations on campus. — Greg Beaubien

Aaron J. Moore, Ph.D.
PRSA member Aaron J. Moore, Ph.D., is an associate professor of public relations at Rider University. His primary research topic is sports media relations. Moore is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association. You may reach him via email at or on Twitter: @pubrelationprof.


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