Rarely since the days of Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton have scandalmongers been so fixated on the prizes and pitfalls of a college internship.
The reason is obvious: the revelation by The Star that Missouri House Speaker John Diehl — 49-year-old married father of three and one of the most powerful players in state politics — had been swapping sexually charged cellphone texts with a 19-year-old Capitol intern.
Diehl apologized, saying, “I am wrong and truly sorry,” and resigned.
The scandal comes at a time when millions of students in two- and four-year colleges find themselves clamoring for competitive internships, seeing them as must-have resume builders and keys to coveted jobs.
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We talked with people in the T-Bones organization's unpaid internship program about how it works and who it benefits. (Video by Mara Williams) McClatchy
But just as the perceived value of internships has grown, so too have questions over who benefits most from the arrangements. While internships can hold great value as career starters, they also can create an environment — with college students hungry for jobs and employers able to feed that desire — that’s ripe for exploitation.
Few doubt the importance of internships to college students, even as the economy moves further out of the recession’s shadow. While unemployment for those ages 25 and older stands at 4.5 percent, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics says it’s more than double that, 9.6 percent, for people ages 20 to 24. It’s triple, 15 percent, for 18- and 19-year-olds.
Although lawmaker-intern sexcapades have upended lives and careers in the past, such ill-conceived affaires de coeur hardly rank as a top concern for students.
“They think they’ve got to do something, right?” said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute. “What they know, and it’s probably true, is that they don’t want a resume that says they didn’t do anything. So it’s got to be something. … It shows that ‘I was trying, learning something. I was willing to work.’”
Mike Nguyen, 24, a sophomore engineering student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has a $15-an-hour internship this summer at a local engineering firm.
“I hope to get everyday experience,” he said. He went through three interviews to get the job. “I hope to make connections.”
Asha Clark, 22, who is graduating magna cum laude from UMKC with a degree in psychology, started getting internships while still in high school in St. Louis. First she worked at a pharmacy.
“It made me realize I didn’t want to go into pharmacy,” she said.
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The next two internships were for $10 an hour with a St. Louis clinical psychologist in private practice. Clark worked as a receptionist but also sat in on therapy sessions.
“It made me realize what I want to go into,” she said.
This spring semester, University of Kansas sophomore Sara Prendergast, 19, of Salina was an intern at the Kansas statehouse for House Speaker Ray Merrick. She was taken aback by the intern scandal in Jefferson City — she and the Missouri Southern State University intern who was involved with Diehl are the same age.
“I was shocked,” Prendergast said. “Shocked not so much that it happened, but because she had (a similar intern) position as me and how different her experience was than mine.”
Prendergast said she spent her days, unpaid but receiving college credit, in Topeka “in a professional environment doing the tasks that a legislative assistant would be doing.”
She saw and spoke to Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, daily.
“I never sent him a text,” she said. Texts went through the speaker’s communications director.
Prendergast, a political science major, said her internship was a valuable experience and taught her much about how to deal with professional people, “particularly people older than me.”
But she also learned that legislative services was probably not for her.
“I’m leaning toward law,” she said.
Paid or unpaid
Not all internships are created equal. Nor are all internships equal in their power to generate future jobs.
One of the biggest determining factors is whether an internship comes with a paycheck.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers’ 2014 student survey included 44,000 responses from students, including 10,210 from seniors getting bachelor’s degrees at nearly 700 colleges and universities.
Nearly 61 percent of the 2014 graduates had internships before they graduated, the report said. Slightly more than half of those who had an internship, either paid or unpaid, received job offers before they graduated.
But data collected over the last four years comparing the results of paid internships to unpaid internships to having no internship at all have repeatedly turned up the same result: Students with paid internships did far better in the job market than those with unpaid internships.
Students with unpaid internships, in fact, generally did no better than students who graduated having had no internship.
In the 2014 report, students with paid internships came out better on job offers in every sector: for-profit companies, nonprofits, government agencies.
Students with paid internships from for-profit companies had the best outcome: 65 percent of those with internships got offers before graduation.
“Having an internship program helps us identify talent,” said Renee Gartelos, director of human resources for engineering firm Burns & McDonnell, which last year hired more than 200 interns, all paid. “Internship programs are critical to our overall recruitment strategy.”
Eighty-five percent of Burns & McDonnell’s interns are converted to full-time employees, she said.
Unpaid interns, on the other hand, fared comparatively poorly. No matter which sector, only about 40 percent of unpaid student interns received job offers before graduating.
That outcome is a statistical wash with that of peers with no internship at all. Among non-interns, 39 percent received job offers before graduating.
“The bottom line,” said Eisenbrey, “is that you can be worse off with an unpaid internship than if you had no internship at all.”
Starting salaries for those who had an unpaid internship, he said, not only tend to be lower than for those who once held paid internships, but they also tend to be lower than for those who had no internship. A possible explanation:
“Employers don’t value it (the unpaid internship) as much,” Eisenbrey said. “The employer knows you’re a person who is willing to work for not very much, even nothing.”
Catherine Ruetschlin, a senior policy analyst at Demos, a Washington-based public policy institute, said one of the major concerns that surround unpaid internships is access. Many students, she said, might want to take an unpaid internship but cannot afford to.
Wealthier students benefit; poor students don’t.
“It’s an opportunity for one and an obstacle for the other,” she said.
She recalled her unpaid graduate school internship at the United Nations, a job that required her to take out a $40,000 loan for school plus New York living expenses.
“I valued the opportunity,” she said.
A decade has passed.
“I’m still paying off the debt.”
Ending up in court
Unpaid internships can cost employers too. High-profile cases regarding the legality of unpaid or even low-paying internships have been finding their way before judges and juries.
The U.S. Department of Labor publishes six guidelines that for-profit companies must meet to hire unpaid interns. Among them: Internships are for the benefit of interns, not employers; interns do not displace other workers; and interns receive career training of a sort that might further their educations.
Condé Nast, publisher of magazines that include The New Yorker, GQ, Vanity Fair and Glamour, last winter settled a $5.85 million class action lawsuit, filed in 2013 on behalf of thousands of interns, alleging that they were illegally paid little or next to nothing.
Meanwhile, Comcast’s NBCUniversal paid out $6.4 million in a similar suit.
“If an internship is paid, that is basically the same as being an employee. It creates an employer-employee relationship,” said New York attorney Maurice Pianko, who since 2012 has built a practice suing companies for what he considers intern employment abuse.
With paid internships, Pianko and others said, interns possess the same workplace rights and protections against sexual, racial or other job discrimination as other employees.
But in most states, unpaid interns do not have similar rights.
“They are working on faith, hoping they will get something (a job) at the end,” Pianko said. “But most of the time, they don’t get the job. They are being used for free labor.”
Many unpaid interns receive college credit for their work. Eisenbrey, for one, thinks that arrangement is worse.
“In many ways, I consider it a double scam,” he said. “The employee in this case, the intern, is paying for the college credit. It comes out of the employee’s pocket.
“They’re not getting a professor; they’re working for someone and not being paid for it. And they are really not getting the education they’ve paid for. They’re being exploited by the employer, who gets their work for free, and the university gets their money without providing anything.”
Burdett Loomis, who for 30 years has directed the legislative intern program at the University of Kansas, said he knows that some employers do take advantage of interns. Many internships in the nation’s Capitol, including prestigious White House internships, are not paid.
Many of these internships work the same way. Students pay regular university tuition, minus campus fees. At KU, Loomis said, the school tries to get students the best deal on dormitory-style housing in Washington — about $3,000 for four months — and offers need-based scholarships to some.
“They get terrific experience,” Loomis said. “Twenty years ago, a lot of interns would be stuffing envelopes or standing by the copy machine. But these days in many cases, interns are crucial to how the institution functions. Like at the White House, those kids have jobs to do. They are working, doing stuff they would not have an opportunity to do on campus.”
Going for broke
Many interns know the deal when they take their jobs.
Long hours, hard work, maybe the possibility of a job. And even if not, the possibility of making connections and earning goodwill that could lead to something else.
Nick Restivo, 25, knew that he’d be working hard last year as a sales intern for the Kansas City T-Bones baseball team.
The organization is known for putting its 40 or so seasonal interns through their paces from May to September. When the team is out of town, work slows. But when the T-Bones are playing at home, the college students can find themselves at the ballpark for 12 hours or more a day.
Working unpaid for college credit while he got his master’s degree, Restivo, who grew up in Independence, said he made money by also working 12-hour shifts, often on Saturdays and Sundays, at a fast-food restaurant.
“I’m a sports nut,” Restivo said. “I knew when I graduated I wanted to get into the sports industry.”
After his internship last year, he now has a full-time job in the T-Bones front office as a group sales associate.
His unpaid internship paid off.