By Charles Johnson with reporting and writing from JAMS 320 class at UW-Milwaukee
An internship or work experience would be required to obtain an undergraduate degree from a UW System school under a proposal in Gov. Scott Walker’s new budget.
The topic was not brought up in the actual budget address, and Walker has not responded to reporters for Media Milwaukee, leaving a lack of information regarding the extent of the regulation and how terms like “work experience” would be defined.
State Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, along with various other state officials, UWM Department Chairs and administration, and local internship recruiters also declined commenting until more information has been released about the details. Although Walker’s budget now heads to the Legislature, Republican legislative leaders didn’t return calls. The UW System supports the plan, though, as does a student member of the Board of Regents, which would be responsible for coming up with the specifics.
However, on campus some students are concerned about the mandate the government slipped into his budget, a requirement overshadowed by media attention on other initiatives, such as a proposed tuition cut.
Those against the internship requirement mentioned everything from resentment over being forced to work for free to a fear of a lack of internships in an over saturated market already full of students clamoring to find them (this could be an issue even more acute in smaller communities with UW schools). On the flip side, students in favor of the requirement welcomed both the challenge and experience that an internship requirement would provide, saying it could help them get jobs.
Among those students and professors directly affected, positions are varied. Professors tended to oppose a governmental mandate on internships, saying the governor is overstepping his boundaries to make policy on what should be a university, and, ultimately, a student’s decision.
“This new policy would be an example of government overreach into academic affairs. A course requirement like this would be a matter of curriculum,” said Mike Newman, Chair of the Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies department at UWM. That department has a rigorous internship program that requires students to meet certain standards, such as those involving grade point average and classes taken – to obtain internship credit. However, it’s up to students whether to seek internships and credit.
“Academic affairs should be the business of academics, not politicians,” Newman said.
There is also concern on campus that requiring an internship could work for some fields better than others.
Goldie Gibbs, a Japanese major at UWM, noted her uncertainties of being able to find local internships. “I don’t know of any internships in Milwaukee. Maybe if you go to Minneapolis or Chicago, but that’s another cost,” she said.
Gibbs’ doubts may be warranted, as Milwaukee area companies offer fewer than 400 internships, according to estimates from Indeed.com and Looksharp.com, job sites. For these 400 internships, UWM has about 23,000 undergraduates enrolled, not to mention other Milwaukee-area college students looking for internship opportunities. In smaller communities with UW schools, the internships available are probably even more limited.
Such saturation of the job market could put a strain on those helping students to find internships.
“We already get quite a lot of applications for the PR internships, so I think this new requirement would result in an overwhelming number of applications,” Stacy Vogel Davis, PR Director of the Zoological Society of Milwaukee, said. “I’d have to see more specifics from this proposal to see what will be required of the students and whether the state will offer the UW system or employers resources to create more internship programs.”
Although some may feel overwhelmed with the amount of prospective interns this proposal could bring, others are excited about the opportunity it presents.
Matt Ottelien, a Mechanical Engineering major at UWM, thinks this requirement would be beneficial for students in the long run.
“If you do a good job at your internship, it’s more likely that your internship will offer you a job,” said Ottelien. “I want to find something that works for me and kind of gives me a leg up.”
Kodee Henrus, a third-year mechanical engineering student, likes it too. “I am actually really on board with that,” he said. “As an engineering student, we all know that if we don’t have an internship in college that were going to make $30,000 less. So basically, if you don’t get an internship your schooling is worthless.”
Hensrud thinks that no matter what a person is studying in the UW System, having an internship in college will give students more benefits after college. On the other hand, he believes that it could become an issue for a lot of students if the internships they receive do not pay wages.
“Unpaid internships aren’t really an option for me and many others because college kids need a lot of money to help continue in school, and only a few kids that have that money previously or that have a full ride on a scholarship would be able to consider that option,” he said.
A leg up?
Perhaps a ‘leg up’ is exactly what Gov. Scott Walker is trying to offer students. The Walker internship proposal came in a press release a day before the state budget address on February 8. In the release, Walker suggests implementing a requirement that all students looking to graduate from any UW system school must first complete either an internship or some form of workplace experience. The proposal comes in the wake of Walker and other Republican lawmakers stressing an increased workforce development mission for the UW schools, which has concerned those who believe in UWM’s status as a research university.
Walker has not responded to Media Milwaukee regarding his intentions, but has also allotted $42.5 million for “improving college affordability and attainment, enhancing work readiness, graduates finding jobs in Wisconsin, and college efficiency,” according to a press release.
The details will matter, of course. Students said they had many questions: Would campus newspaper experience count as an internship? What if they tried and were turned down repeatedly for one? Are there enough internships to go around? Is the plan forcing free corporate labor? How, exactly, is the governor defining “work experience”? However, his PR staff did not return repeated requests for comment.
The idea was sent to the UW Board of Regents and UW System for both review and implementation. The UW System office said they back the new policy, saying it is in line with their 2020FWD strategic plan.
The budget requires undergraduate students first enrolling in the 2018-19 academic year earning a degree at a UW System school to have an internship or work experience before graduation, according to UW System Director of Communications Stephanie Marquis.
To help students with the locating and obtaining of these internships, The UW System launched Career Connect on September 20, 2016 to help students connect with Wisconsin employers for internships, job shadowing and potential careers. Career connect is one of the initiatives of 2020FWD.
“We know internships often turn into job offers,” said UW System President Ray Cross in UW System’s news story announcing Career connect. “A meaningful job experience can lead to more graduates staying in Wisconsin to raise their families, becoming an integral part of our workforce and economy.”
While the UW System office is making strides in implementing the new proposal, it is the job of the UW Board of Regents to classify the criteria in deciding what counts as viable internship or work experience.
Although the President of the Board neglected to answer questions, James Langnes, a student member of the board and student at UW-Whitewater did offer his remarks to Media Milwaukee.
“Anytime a student can enhance their experience doing something outside the classroom, they should,” said Langnes.
Langnes said that the board had not yet met on the governor’s proposal, however he is in full support. He also mentioned that community service may be a possible option for students who may not have access to internships. Regardless, he is assured that the board and UW system will do anything in their power to help students.
Unfortunately, many students are still skeptical as to how much help they will get from the government with this regulation compared to what they will have to sacrifice.
Workforce or Forced Work?
One of Walker’s main motives with his internship mandate is to promote a body of students that is more ready to contribute to the workforce upon graduation. However, concerns have arisen surrounding the method of forcing students to take on internships which often require the interns to hold many of the same responsibilities of regular workers but for no monetary compensation. For many students, the idea of working for free in return for experience, or in some cases college credit, is simply impractical. Some internships do pay, but many do not.
“I don’t come from a background where I’d be supported to do an unpaid internship,” said Josephine Hildebrandt, a Community Engagement and Education major at UWM. “Everyone can’t afford to participate in an unpaid internship because they may be trying to earn a living or live in a low income household.”
Hildebrandt currently works at the Student Success Center as a Peer Mentor and is seeking additional employment to help pay for food and other necessities at home.
Gibbs, the Japanese major, cites similar complications.
“I’m not well off enough to devote my time to something I’m not getting paid for,” said Gibbs.
Jamie Harris, who is the Associate Director of Urban Studies at UWM, says there has been a starving of revenue through $2 billion in tax cuts, and that now we’re in a manufacturing crisis.
The state’s capacity to support these functions has been reduced significantly, says Harris, who can’t take the budget proposal seriously. He thinks that the trend of cutting aspects of education, by Wisconsin standards, began in 2011 when Gov. Walker limited the collective bargaining of many state employees.
“Many people don’t see funding education as a significant state role,” says Harris. “People still think that you’re responsible for higher education, that it’s your human capital investment.”
This is not the first time quarrels surrounding intern’s free labor have arisen. Receiving minimum wage, school credit or other benefits for working as an intern has been debated for decades. In 2013, The New York Times reported on a Manhattan district court judge William Pauley III when he said former Fox Searchlight Pictures interns should be paid minimum wage. Two interns filed a lawsuit for not being awarded compensation while working on the 2010 movie Black Swan when they had taken on the responsibilities of paid employees, the newspaper reported.
This is seen as controversial when determining when an intern can be covered by employee protections. Judges do not have legal documentation specifying the requirements for a paid internship. According to Claire Zillman, writer for Fortune, all they have is the Supreme Court ruling about railroad interns from 1947 as the foundation for the internship fact sheet created in 2010 from the U.S. Labor Department.
The U.S. Department of Labor fact sheet lists six criteria that allow unpaid internships to be legal: The internship is “similar to training which would be given in an educational environment”; the internship is “for the benefit of the intern”; the intern “does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff”; the “employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded”; the intern “is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship”; and “the employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.”
Jean Salzer, Director of UWM’s Career Planning and Resource Center, which helps students already seeking internships to land them, has worries.
“There will come a point when there will not be enough internships,” said Salzer. “Not all companies can even pay for internships.”
Although the thought of working for free seems infeasible, others are welcoming the opportunity with open arms. Peter Snodgrass, a Finance and Risk Management major at UW-Madison, said that he plans on completing multiple internships before he graduates and feels that it is a great way for a student to get experience in their field before actually hitting the job field.
Even those not affected by the governor’s address voiced agreement with his proposed regulation, again displaying a competitive spirit. Trevor Nargis, a Finance and Economics major at Concordia University, a private university that is not affected by the UW System requirement, said that he believes that this proposition will end up being a good idea. He feels that the extra competition will push the private school students to create a stronger resume, and try and get an internship, even if they aren’t required to complete an internship. He notes, however, that certain majors at his school are already required to complete an internship prior to graduation.
However, some students are worried that the proposal will give them more competition for internships and create other problems.
“It adds a lot of pressure on something you shouldn’t really be worrying about now,” said Tanzil Ahmad, a sophomore majoring in Chemistry in concerns to internships.
Ahmad also said that it would help students learn what their future careers may be like, but it could be difficult for other students in other majors. Ahmad also said students, especially in the science fields, like to get certain general classes out of the way, and that an internship may make it more difficult to graduate in time.
Ahmad expressed concerns about students who may not have decent grades and if they’d be denied for internships, putting off their graduation.
Other Schools Already Enforcing Internships
Besides certain majors at Concordia, there are several college campuses already enforcing regulations that require students to obtain some sort of internship or work experience before receiving their diploma.
Currently, most students at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College of Information Systems, Public Policy, and Management in the two-year program are required to complete summer internships. The first internship is to be scheduled for the summer between one’s first and second year in the program. The internships are not for academic credit, but students receive either a pass or fail grade on their transcripts based on whether they did the internship or not. The internship is meant to reflect the student’s career interests, and must be merely, “professional, and include work that is beneficial to the organization,” according to the program’s website.
Similarly, Marquette University’s Advertising and Public Relations students are also required to complete an internship to graduate. The Diederich College of Communications also strongly encourages all students in other majors to land internships and offers extensive resources to help them find one.
Additionally, there is actually a campus within the UW System that is already partially enforcing internships as well. UW Oshkosh requires an internship or co-op for all students in the business program. They are the only accredited public college in WI to do this.
While the idea may have its merit, namely the seemingly benevolent intent of offering students experience for a brighter future, it is still debated whether or not this is really an arena for governmental interference.
Some professors here at home have different qualms over the hindrances an internship requirement may have on students.
Political Economy and Public Policy Professor Jeffery Sommers said the time dedicated to fulfill the work experience or internship requirement upon graduation will ultimately affect grades. He mentioned that if students see that other students are striving by using this option, then they should have the choice to exercise that option.
“To force this requirement on students is a very bad idea. I think it is paternalistic, and it doesn’t allow students to make an informed choice,” said Sommers. “We don’t need another big government mandate telling students what they must do.”
Sommers is not the only one with negative remarks towards the government’s intervention on university’s mandates.
“I have nothing against students getting work experience and internships. A majority of students work while they get their degrees. It’s just not appropriate for the governor to try and impose specific graduation requirements,” said UWM Linguistics Professor Nicholas Fleisher.
Although some may oppose the governmental intervention into educational restriction, still some students continue to support the proposed policy, and look optimistically at the benefits such a regulation promotes.
“It kickstarts the transition into finding a job specified towards the area of study that students are pursuing,” said Sam Kersebet, a Junior in the Film program at UWM. “I personally had an internship experience in making video content when I was in high school and though I did not gain a vast amount of knowledge about making videos themselves, I was exposed to the routines and expectations of being in a professional environment every day.”
-UWM journalist student Charles Johnson wrote this story with reporting and writing from the following student journalists (in alphabetical order): Andrew Boldt, Cassandra Bretl, Ethan Duran, John Fennimore, Evan Heffelfinger, Chardanay Hunt, Joel Kananen, Martin Lemense, Hailey McLaughlin, Kaylin Newman, Maren Orlowski, Ryan Ramos, Harald Reynolds, David Watters, and Naomi Wilson.