UMKC Internships: Are they worth it?

Elizabeth Golden

Feature article written by: Elizabeth Golden, Erin Melrose and Anna Lerner

UMKC’s internship program attracts more than 50 students per semester, with the majority coming from the communication studies department. Dating back to 1952, the program also attracts students from criminal justice, political science, English, engineering, urban planning and design, biology, business and economics.

“Without an internship, no one will hire you,” said Dr. Sungyop Kim, urban planning and design internship coordinator. “Employers want job candidate to have experience.”

Urban planning and design requires all majors to complete an internship as part of the general education requirements.

According to Kim, the curriculum includes a liberal arts foundation with a strong focus on planning and urban redevelopment.

“Students with internships participate in making housing and transportation plans,” Kim said. “They work with professionals as part of the team. They won’t direct the project, but they’ll work with the planners.”

This hands-on approach allows students to build relationships as well as create work samples to show future employers.

“The field is so small,” Kim said. “It’s all about word of mouth.”

Kim said it’s common for students to receive internships through indirect ways. Often, they attend city meetings to meet employers or are recommended by a faculty member.

“Students have to search for opportunities, but maintaining a healthy relationship with faculty can be helpful,” Kim said. “Sometimes faculty members are asked to recommend one or two good students for a job or internship.”

Students majoring in communication studies with an emphasis in journalism are also required to complete a three-credit-hour internship as part of their general curriculum.

In order to receive three credit hours, the student must complete 225 hours of work over the course of the semester. The internship must also satisfy the goals set forth by the department.

The goals include providing on-the-job experience for students, allowing students to appreciate a professional environment and giving students understanding of how the work affects the organization. The internship should be a part of the academic process. Both the organization and the students are required to sign a form in agreement of the previously set goals.

Dr. Linda Kurz, undergraduate communication studies internship coordinator, strongly supports the internship program and recommends all majors complete an internship.

“Internships are only required for those in the journalism emphasis, but I strongly, strongly, strongly recommend those with other emphasis also complete an internship,” Kurz said.

Within the communication studies major, students have the opportunity to choose an emphasis in journalism and mass communication, film and media arts or interpersonal and public communication.

Kurz said the majority of students don’t have a problem finding an internship, considering students only apply to three or four places before they receive an offer.

“Most of the time, it’s not a problem since people are constantly calling wanting interns,” Kurz said. “If it is [a problem], we’ll search together. I have students come to me having no idea where to look, and they’ll leave my office with two to three places to pursue.”

Grima Chavarkar, senior communication studies major and business administration minor, found her internship on her own. She received a paid internship from the Kansas City VA Medical Center by walking in and asking about opportunities. She received a research coordinator position, where she worked 25 hours per week in order to obtain three credit hours.

“I really enjoyed the experience and learned a lot of new things in the medical field,, and as a result, got a lot of references and business connections,” Chavarkar said.

In her role as research coordinator, she worked primarily with patients 55-70 years of age who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

“I got to see the process of a study get FDA approved, from start to finish” Chavarkar said. “Everything was very structured and organization was a key factor in the work.”

According to Chavarkar, the experience was a positive one, as she acquired many new skill-sets, becoming more adept in time management and improving her communication skills. This was helped in part by participating in nationwide conference calls.

“I had to learn a lot of new things myself, and there was a great amount of on-the-job training which was pretty surprising since I expected there to be more training from the start,” Chavarkar said. “I had never had an office job before, so this was an entirely new experience for me.”

Nancy Wilkinson, director of student services at the Henry W. Bloch School of Management, recommends all students develop some work experience before graduation.

“We strongly encourage students to gain some career-related work experience whether in an internship or as a part-time employee,” Wilkinson said. “However, an internship is not required in any of our programs currently. Having that ‘foot in the door’ can lead to a full-time position in the future.”

According to Wilkinson, this type of experience can also help to validate a student’s major and career plans.

“If a student who plans to be an accountant, for example, gets an internship in a firm and learns that he or she does not enjoy that type of work or work environment, stress or hours, the hope is that the realization will come in time to change majors,” Wilkinson said.

Kurz said she believes this also applies to communication studies majors.

“Every now and then I have a student with a bad experience,” Kurz said. “Internships can tell you what you don’t want to do as much as they tell you what you want to do.”

In order to prevent bad experiences from occurring regularly, the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour division regulates unpaid internships in order to ensure they abide by the minimum wage requirements.

If an intern receives a position in a “for-profit” private sector, it will be considered employment and must meet the following criteria:

  1. The internship must be similar to training, which gives an educational environment.
  2. The experience must benefit the intern.
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.
  4. The employer receives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.
  5. The intern is not entitled to a job at the end of the internship.
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

The intern should not perform “routine work of the business,” meaning the intern, if unpaid, should not be required to complete clerical work or do any work in which the employer directly benefits.

According to the 2010 Fair Labor Standards Act, “Although if the interns are engaged in the operations of the employer or are performing productive work [clerical work] then the fact that they may be receiving some benefit in the form of a new skill or improved work habits will not exclude them from the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirements because the employer benefits from the interns’ work.”

The Department of Labor’s six-factor test began with a 1947 Supreme Court case, Walling v. Portland Terminal, in which the court ruled that railroad trainees were not employees and didn’t require payment.

“If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,” said Nancy J. Leppink, the acting director of the department’s wage and hour division, to The New York Times.

Nationally, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 47 percent of internships are unpaid. While research has not been completed locally, it is estimated that the majority of Kansas City-based internships are unpaid.

Karen Vorst, internship coordinator for the department of economics, refuses to forward information to students about unpaid internships.

“We do expect our internships to be paid,” Vorst said. “We believe that if the experience is worthwhile and mutually beneficial, students must be paid for their time and efforts.”

Jameka Taylor, senior communication studies major and criminal justice minor, received an unpaid internship with U.S. Homeland Security Investigations.

“I was happy with the compensation,” Taylor said. “Payment was not necessary. The experience was priceless.”

Mary Donaldson, senior communication studies major, also received an unpaid internship working for KCTV5.

“A lot of the time I would go out on stories with reporters,” Donaldson said. “I also had to do a lot of office work like filing and answering the phones, they made me edit scripts and log footage.  I worked Saturday mornings and would help run the assignment desk.. I didn’t mind not being paid.”

Manon Eilts, marketing communications director and internship coordinator of the United States Tennis Association- Missouri Valley, said he is careful to not violate to law when providing work for his unpaid interns.

“Interns may help with administrative tasks on occasion, but we give our interns projects they can own from start to finish so they have actual samples of work they can show a future employer,” Eilts said.

Although Kurz believes 99 percent of students have good experiences with internships, the program is not without faults.

“I spent my entire summer doing tedious chores for a public relations firm,” said one intern, who wishes to remain unnamed. “Part of the time I was creating press packets by inserting papers into bags and the other part I was sitting alone in my office doing nothing.”

The student received an unpaid internship and accepted on the basis of completing “real-world work.”

“On the first day, I was asked to create a blog post for a product of theirs,” he said. “I thought ‘OK, this isn’t too bad. It could be worse,’ and that was actually the best assignment they gave me. The days following involved backing up their computers, mailing packages and being told there’s nothing else for me to do, so I had to wait at my desk without anything to do for the rest of the day. This was not how I imaged my summer.”

Even though the experience itself was not worthwhile, the student believes the internship helped to build his résumé.

“Many jobs in the public relations world require previous internship experience, so just having this on my résumé has helped greatly,” he said. “It would have been nice to have actual work experience to share with future employers, but I still don’t regret having the experience.”

Kurz said this situation is extremely rare and refuses to allow students to take internships with companies known for requiring interns to complete menial tasks.

“I don’t allow students to do grunt work. I tell students it’s not their responsibility to make coffee,” Kurz said. “This is supposed to be a sound learning experience.”

As a result, 40 percent of UMKC students receive jobs based on their internship, according to Kurz.

“People would rather hire someone they know,” Kurz said. “If a student has an internship [with a company] then a job opens, the employer would much rather hire someone they know who has a good work ethic than search through hundreds of résumés.”

Daniel Molina, Crossroads Public Relations account manager and internship coordinator, said he is a firm believer in interns receiving full-time jobs based on their internship

“Multiple interns, including myself, have been hired for full-time positions as a result of an internship,” Molina said.

For more information on internships, visit career services or the specific department of program.