Make us your home page


Robert Trigaux

The new get-ahead ploy: Paying to get unpaid business internships




Wake up and good morning. As a parent of a college student, I'm quite aware of how competitive the world is getting. College students (and their parents) constantly hear the mantra that there should rarely be any downtime for students who really want to get ahead. And quality internships -- summer, fall or spring, in work environments that truly offer opportunities to learn from sharp people -- are the Holy Grail.

It's not just resume building or "who you know" but also giving young people a high level exposure to what's new out there... to experience a 21st century work situation that we as parents may not even know about.

But I did not realize there is so much competition out there that there's now an industry of selling and buying unpaid internships.

The New York Times reported on a young business called University of Dreams that has become a gatekeeper to cool internship opportunities -- as  long as you pay for the right to be an unpaid intern. So, in this world, whoever has the most money really does win? Here's a video news report.

Take one example in the Times story. The parents of University of Tampa junior Andrew Topel paid $8,000 this year to a service that helped their son get a summer job as an assistant at Ford Models, a top agency in New York. Says Andrew’s father, Avrim Topel:

"It would’ve been awfully difficult” to get a job like that, he states, "without having a friend or knowing somebody with a personal contact."

Andrew completed the eight-week internship in July and was invited to return for another summer or to interview for a job after graduation, according to the Times. Andrew’s parents used the University of Dreams, which just happens to be the largest and most visible player in an industry "that has boomed in recent years as internship experience has become a near-necessity on any competitive entry-level resume."

Keep in mind the recession. Many college graduates would gladly settle for a nonpaying internship. But even then, they are competing with laid-off employees with far more experience.

The University of Dreams told the Times its number of applicants surged above 9,000, up 30 percent from last year, amid this year's economic downturn. Unlike prior years, the company says, a significant number of its clients were recent graduates, rather than the usual college juniors.

The program advertises a guaranteed internship placement, eight weeks of summer housing, five meals a week, seminars and tours around New York City for $7,999. It has a full-time staff of 45, and says it placed 1,600 student interns in 13 cities around the world this year, charging up to $9,450 for a program in London and as little as $5,499 in Costa Rica.

Employers, the story says, say middlemen like University of Dreams save them time and hassle. 

And note the different takes from the elite Stanford University perspective, versus one from Florida State University. Here, from the Times story, is Anthony Antonio, a professor of education at Stanford:

"You’re going to increase that divide early, on families that understand that investment process and will pay and the families that don’t. This is just ratcheting it up another notch, which is quite frightening."

And here's the quote from Julia McDonald, the career services director at Florida State University, questioned the need for these programs:

"The economy has had an impact, but there are more than enough internship opportunities out there still. That’s like buying a luxury car." 

On the other hand, here's FSU student Tanya Lam who used University of Dreams to buy an unpaid internship at Universal Music.

It's always been a jungle out there. Now even Darwin would be impressed.

 -- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:25am]


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours