Baylor University junior Michael Blair has worked on building an impressive résumé to stand out in the crowded field of aspiring political press officers.
Last summer, he served as a volunteer organizer for the re-election campaign of U.S. Rep. David Schweikert in his hometown of Scottsdale, Ariz.
This past spring, Blair worked in the office of state Rep. Diane Patrick, managing her events, social media outreach and daily schedule for sometimes grueling 16-hour days during the Texas Legislative session.
And this summer, he is working in U.S. Rep. Bill Flores’ Waco district office for 10 hours a week, while taking summer classes at Baylor.
But he hasn’t earned a paycheck yet for any of his work.
Blair, 20, signed up for the unpaid internships in hopes of building experience to eventually land a job in the press office for a member of Congress or within a federal agency.
But a string of recent lawsuits filed by former unpaid interns in a variety of fields challenge whether the arrangements are fair.
In June, two former interns jointly sued Condé Nast Publications for failing to pay them minimum wage at their respective internships at W Magazine and The New Yorker, which the company produces.
Another intern filed a class-action suit against Warner Music Group and Atlantic Records last month, alleging that he should have been paid for office work performed during his unpaid internship because the position did not provide academic or vocational training.
A federal judge in June ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated minimum wage and overtime laws by not paying production interns who worked on the 2010 film “Black Swan.”
Still, some students view unpaid internships as often crucial steppingstones to prepare them for high-demand careers.
Blair, for example, is planning to move to Washington, D.C., next summer and compete against the country’s top political minds for the few coveted openings on Capitol Hill.
“To come in without experience, you’d have a hard time finding an office that would be willing to pay you to do anything,” said Blair, a double major in public relations and political science. “In my case, fortunately, I’m going to come in and have experience in all arenas of political offices, whether a campaign or (working) at a district office or a capitol office.”
Marjorie Ellis, executive director of Baylor’s Office of Career and Professional Development, said while she would encourage students to seek internships where they would be paid some sort of stipend, she does think unpaid internships can be useful when set up properly.
“I do think that there’s probably some abuses on both sides where you’ve got employers that are just looking for free labor,” Ellis said. “But then you have students that take an internship because it sounds really good, but they don’t want to do anything when they get there, but they’ll make it sound really good on their résumé.”
Baylor does not track how many paid or unpaid internships students complete because students can apply for them independent of connections from the career center.
Ellis, who took over the office in November, is hiring an assistant coordinator for internships to act as the students’ primary connector for intern opportunities and to offer guidance on using the gigs to prepare for their careers.
She also wants to develop a training program for local companies that offer unpaid internships on how to properly set them up and utilize them.
For example, work duties and hours should be clearly established before the student begins the internship, and the interns should be able to observe or assist on projects that would prepare them for future potential careers.
“(They need to) show the student what they’re going to be able to take away from that internship once they’re done,” Ellis said. “Not necessarily what they want the student to do for them, but what the internship can do for that student.”
Ariel Gallop graduated from Baylor in May with a general education degree and plans to pursue a career in physical therapy.
She is serving in an unpaid internship with a physical therapy clinic in her hometown of Austin after turning down a paid job with the company’s satellite location an hour north of the city.
“I’m more grateful just to be able to observe,” said Gallop, 22. “It would be cool to get paid and (be) closer to home, but it’s not really worth it to drive that far, when I would be getting minimum wage. I’d be spending that on gas.”
Gallop said physical therapy internships and jobs are highly competitive as companies scramble for trained staffers who can treat their growing number of aging, baby boomer generation patients, particularly those who are recovering from surgeries.
Gallop said she was surprised to be offered the minimum-wage position, especially after being passed over for a similar job with a different clinic for not having enough experience.
She noted that most physical therapy students are required to perform about 100 hours of an internship or job shadowing in order to graduate, making it harder to land an intern spot with a therapy provider. Gallop said she likely could not have taken an internship outside of Austin without any means to cover living expenses. But she wanted to gain some hands-on training in the field while she applies to a graduate program in physical therapy.
“I don’t think anything should be given to anyone, everyone has to start from the bottom,” Gallop said. “That’s kind of presumptuous to just graduate and think that your internship should be paid, in my personal opinion.”
Ellis said she does think taking an unpaid internship may be a greater burden on lower-income students who work to support themselves in college, which could lead to them not obtaining needed experience if fewer paid positions are available.
She hopes to establish a campuswide endowment program at Baylor that will provide scholarships for interns to cover their living costs when they are not paid wages.
For example, Blair’s legislative internship was through Baylor’s Bob Bullock Scholars Program, so he earned both 12 hours of class credit and a monthly stipend of $1,400 for living expenses. Ellis said Clemson University already has a universitywide endowment supporting interns.
“(An internship) is such a necessary step, I think, in the career development process,” Ellis said. “Our students are certainly getting what they need academically in the classroom, but the internship allows them to be more professionally polished and savvy . . . which could lead to them getting a job or starting at a higher salary.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.