Summer Interns: Few Jobs, Modest Pay, Less Partying

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For summer interns (and intern hopefuls), it's another season of hard knocks. Yes, the recession is over and summer job opportunities are up, but barely. For those who do get work, many say it is menial and the pay meager. And as for those company-sponsored intern parties, sailing excursions and class trips, they're mostly history.

A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found a 2.9% increase in the number of internships over last year. That might sound upbeat, but with an almost 20% drop in 2009, it's far from a real recovery in the number of positions offered. "More firms are taking in summer interns again, but not to the levels we saw in 2006, '07 and '08," says Barbara Berliner, director of Sponsors for Educational Opportunities, which coordinates summer internships and counts Goldman Sachs, UBS and law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges among its clients.

Pay is another sore spot. The NACE survey found that interns with a bachelor's degree make on average $17 per hour in their summer stints, down slightly from last year. That average covers a wide range: a marketing internship at a finance or real estate firm pays an average of $13.62 hourly for college seniors, according to a 2010 survey on college-graduate and intern pay by Compensation Resources. By contrast, the average college senior with an engineering internship is paid $20.60 per hour, according to the same survey.

What's more, the statistics exclude the growing legion of interns who are paid nothing at all. Take one intern at a New York City firm that raises capital for hedge funds. Not only is the Ivy League student working for free, but the assigned tasks include things like data entry. "It was advertised as a great opportunity to learn about hedge funds, but in reality I'm doing grunt work," says the intern. An unpaid intern at a New York City auction house makes a similar complaint. "We do go on museum field trips and there are lectures about the [art] industry, but I would say 80% of what I do is clerical," he says.

The Department of Labor stipulates that unpaid internships must be "educational" to be legal. But a rise in the number of interns doing clerical work, unrelated to their degree, suggests that this law may be ignored as companies face pressure to keep costs down in a sluggish economy.

Then there's the case of more work, less play.

A lawyer with a New York City law firm who cited anonymity according to firm policy started off as a summer associate in 2007. At that time, her class of 114 summer associates (or "summers," as they are referred to by law firms) enjoyed a party at the Central Park Zoo and a day at a country club. This year they've taken only 60 summers and scrapped the events that law firms used to be legendary for. "I worked longer hours [in 2007] than the summers work now, but we had more events than this year's class," she says.

A partner at an international law firm says that although the firm is spending between $35,000 and $50,000 on events for their summer associates this year, the amount is down by more than $45,000 from the heydays of 2005-07.

The fall in event spending is bad news for the hospitality industry. Save the Date, a New York City events company, used to arrange sunset boat cruises and scavenger hunts for summer interns at investment banks and law firms. Founder Jennifer Gilbert says the average budget her clients had for a summer of 8 to 12 events has fallen by two-thirds. "It has decimated business for events companies," says Gilbert, who has been in the industry for 16 years.

This summer, she's planning an elaborate dinner prepared by a well-known chef as well as wine-tasting for a major law firm. The party is for about 65 people at a cost of roughly $25,000, but it is the only large-scale event the firm will host this summer. Banks, in contrast, are sticking to barbecues and smaller events.

"There's no more renting out a restaurant or club. Now banks will rent a private room or VIP area ... for their summer interns," Gilbert says. Eighteen months ago, interns were wined and dined, with "tens of thousands of dollars" spent on them, she says. "Now there's nothing even close to that."