Thursday, January 21, 2010

New Grads Turn to Internships

Allison Dunn, 23, is tired of walking her boss' dog.

That's not what she bargained for with her paid internship as a New York University graduate student working on a master's degree in education policy.

Advertised as administrative assistant for a publishing house, her internship pays $17 an hour and she's working 20 hours a week.

"I want something in my field," she told university career counselor Mary Snowden.

"But I'm broke so I can't afford to be picky," said Dunn, of Manhattan, explaining that she has $60,000 in student loans with a full course load and she's entirely self-supporting.

Dunn is one of thousands of local college and graduate school students toiling in the booming world of internships, as the crumbling economy makes jobs scarce.

Internships traditionally provided a supervised learning experience in a chosen field while studying, and a ticket to a first paying job with an employer after graduation.

Now, some financially pressed students, like Dunn, settle for paid internships that don't serve their goals.

"There are industries that are exploiting students," said Trudy Steinfeld, executive director of NYU's Wasserman Center for Career development, which manages the school's internship programs.

Steinfeld said the media and brokerage firms are among those using unpaid interns sometimes with the promise of future jobs.

"They always had paid internships," said Steinfeld, referring to the brokerage firms.

"All of a sudden, in this economy, there are big-name firms saying 'if you want into this business, you'll have to work for free doing cold calling,'" he said.

"Cold calling," in this case, is solicitation for brokerage clients from massive lists of telephone numbers.

Even after graduation, some work as unpaid "interns" in situations that violate state labor laws.

State Labor Department spokesman Leo Rosales said students may only work for free if they get school credit. After graduation, the minimum $7.15 hourly wage is required.

These days, some take the unpaid jobs anyway.

Ani Voskanyan, 23, who graduated with honors from Pace College's Lubin Business School in 2007, is working eight hours a week without a salary for a hedge fund because she can't find a paying job in finance.

She said she's "learning a lot," so pay is not an issue, no matter her employer's legal obligation.

To help support herself, Voskanyan, fluent in Russian and Armenian, has set up an Internet operation exporting perfume to eastern European countries.

"I earn money from that," she said. "I took some jobs waitressing, and I know my degree will be worth something in a year or two when the economy picks up."

Some current students are not concerned with the present state of the economy, and eagerly explore every internship opportunity.

"Paid or unpaid, makes no difference to me," said Naman Bhandari, 20, of Rego Park, and a student at NYU's Stern School of Business.

At a recent NYU internship fair, he was interviewed by a Citigroup executive for a summer internship in trading operations.

"I'm applying to get the experience," he said. "The interviewer asked about my thoughts on the economy, my leadership experience and my experience in operations," said Bhandari.

"He also asked about my grade point average. That's 3.5," said Bhandari with a smile.

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