NYU Exploits Interns as Cheap Labor for Startups

Photograph by Jin Lee/Bloomberg

Vandita Sharma writes code for a company that turns old radiators into high-tech heating devices. Gaurav Chhabra develops software that lets computers identify objects on camera. Paul Dariye is designing an app for a startup that helps nonprofits raise money.

The three engineers are paid $11 an hour or less by New York University’s Polytechnic School of Engineering, which has placed them in internships at small companies. Their work is at the center of a battle between NYU’s administration and the graduate student union, which is demanding higher wages for interns at the university’s startup incubators.

Engineers who do jobs comparable to those of Polytechnic’s interns make roughly $43 per hour, according to Glassdoor, a website that tracks salaries. “It’s not just sitting at the reception of some company,” says Sharma, a computer engineering master’s degree student at NYU. “It is very wrong.”

As part of its contract negotiations with the university, the union is pushing for Sharma and her peers at Polytechnic’s Brooklyn campus to be paid as much as students at the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, who can earn more than $30 an hour teaching.

“We won’t be stepping away from the table or agreeing to anything that does not fully account for the terrible working conditions at Poly,” says Lily Defriend, a graduate student in anthropology and a member of the union’s bargaining committee. After the union and the school reached a standstill earlier this month, the two parties agreed to enter mediation.

Polytechnic places 30 graduate students in part-time internships every semester, often doing highly skilled software engineering or Web developing. The startups they work for pay the university $450 per desk to use space at one of its three startup incubators. More than 90 percent of the students in the program come from countries outside the U.S., and most are on student visas that limit their options for work off campus.

“You have to settle for the amount that we’re getting paid because there are not a lot of other options,” says Chhabra, who moved to New York from New Delhi, India, last year and expects to graduate with about $25,000 in student loans.

NYU says the arrangement is a unique chance for students to get their coding hands dirty and their faces in front of upstart executives with jobs to hand out. Zeroing in on their wages is “a very shortsighted assessment,” says Steven Kuyan, associate director of the university’s internship program.

“The money is to a certain degree almost arbitrary,” says Kuyan. “The value exists in the opportunities and the education and the skills that you learn.”

Interns are assigned a faculty mentor who answers questions that arise on the job. Since the program started in 2012, five Polytechnic grads have landed full-time jobs at the companies where they interned.

Sharma speaks reverently about her internship, which she says gets her out of the “very safe environment” of the classroom. But the 23-year-old still chafes at the low pay, which she stretches, along with the money her mother sends from India each month, to get by.

“People might say that, you know, you can work harder and get better jobs,” says Sharma. “For me, I don’t have any option other than this.” Sharma says the experience has had great value. So would a meaningful paycheck.

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