When your summer internship is running a painting business

College Works Painting claims to offer a selective and lucrative summer internship, but some students have had a different experience.

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

You’ve probably been in this freshman setting: A large lecture hall with more than 400 students waiting for class to start when two students enter early to make an announcement. The professor lets them speak, and you, along with a hundred others, decide whether Instagram or the pitch is more worthy of your time. They tell you about a selective, lucrative summer internship opportunity—the details going unsaid—and in a minute, you’re handed a contact information card. You fill it out because you’re a freshman in search of opportunity, and by now you’re well accustomed to putting down your email. Next week your inbox contains something new: not an H&M ad or another neighborhood safety notice—it’s a recruitment pitch for College Works Painting.

College Works Painting offers an internship a typical student would probably find attractive. According to its website, CWP uses mentors to work with students through the academic year to train them in skills highly applicable to a budding professional: owning a business, managing a team, and fostering interpersonal skills. Then students are set free to run painting businesses in the summer. An intern’s success is in their control, but CWP claims even an average intern will net about $10,000 each summer. The most successful, though, can make over $30,000, along with the choice of a $10,000 cash bonus or a trip to Cancun.

A summer job yielding $10,000 on average is certainly something to pique a student’s interest. And while CWP doesn’t deny the difficulty of the program, the experience for some has gone beyond what would constitute a fair degree of intensity.

Former University of Minnesota student Olivia Wicklund was trained as a CWP intern during the 2014-2015 school year. She left the program before it officially started after her assigned mentor took her and a group out on a practice door-to-door sales run. Wicklund said she was pressured by her mentor to take energy shots before door knocking until 10:30 p.m. in winter. Another member of the group was on crutches, Wicklund said, and after a few hours going door-to-door, she fell and further injured herself. Fed up, they left the training session despite their mentor saying they couldn’t leave. Wicklund, and the person on crutches, quit soon after.

Another University student—a junior who interned with CWP after her freshman year and asked not to be named—said she made $36,000 in sales during summer and fall 2016 but was never paid for it. Even if she were, she said, she was uncomfortable with the sales tactics she was taught to use. “The company teaches you to say that you have ‘professionally trained painters,’ when you really just ask all of your friends to work for you,” she said.

CWP co-CEO Matthew Stewart said interns are trained at a Sherwin-Williams store by its employees. “Our safety training well exceeds OSHA requirements, and they’re trained on safety every week,” Stewart said. “As far as the actual methods of painting houses, they are trained, and probably trained just about more than any other painting company.”

Junior Samuel Boundy was one of those professionally trained painters during summer 2015. He was working 40 to 45 hours per week under the management of an intern he felt was unqualified. “He didn’t have many happy clients ever. It almost always felt like we were stealing from them, to be honest. It was a very negative workplace,” he said.

An intern is giving up weekends to work and spending some evenings calling leads to fill up their schedule. I worked from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday.

Boundy said his managing intern cut corners during painting jobs. “We wasted so many hours trying to fix mess-ups … like dropping paint on this guy’s deck and having to scrape it off because my boss didn’t give us enough drop cloths,” he said.

The junior student said she had an experience similar to Boundy’s. “They taught me how to stain in a 15-minute demonstration and then I had to B.S. how to do it with my crew when some poor woman hired me to stain her deck.”

Dangerous health situations were also a concern. “We were supposed to have a plastic sheet to catch the lead particles from a really old house we were scraping lead off of. [My boss] didn’t give me gloves to paint that house either. I could have gotten lead poisoning,” Boundy said.

 

Conflicting realities

 

Stewart said the company’s compensation is fair. He explained interns are paid by commission from the sales they make but are guaranteed a minimum of $4,000 for completing the internship. Stewart said a student who makes $36,000 in sales should be compensated despite not finishing the internship, and they should still receive a 5 percent commission—$1,800, in the junior student’s case.

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

Despite that policy, the student said she was never paid anything. She reached out to her manager and the branch’s vice president but still was never compensated, she said. Nonetheless, Stewart said an experience like this one does not fall in line with company policy.

The general campus sentiment regarding CWP echoes these three students’ experiences and is often characterized by students warning one another to avoid the internship here and at other universities. A search of the University of Minnesota Reddit page yields scores of warnings. And CWP’s reach goes far beyond the University of Minnesota. According to its website, CWP internship programs operate in over 35 states. An op-ed published in The Badger Herald, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s newspaper, alleges the company scams students and misrepresents itself. “Student managers flood into freshmen heavy lectures, speak vaguely of ‘a dream internship opportunity’ and sway wide-eyed young students, who are desperate for internship experience, into giving them contact information,” the article’s author, Luke Schaetzel, wrote.

Stewart denies the article’s allegations. And some students recount a better experience working for the company. Alexandra Sitka, a CWP employee for three years of her undergrad at the University, said she made over $25,000 in six months her freshman year through the program. However, she did not see any money until the last two months of her internship, a fact that neither troubles her now nor did at the time. “That is what starting a business is like,” she said. “You don’t make money right away, you make sacrifices.”

Sitka said that hard work lends itself to success in the internship, and it’s not uncommon for students to be turned off by its demands. At least half of interns will quit before the summer starts, she said, a fact reiterated by Stewart.

“An intern is giving up weekends to work and spending some evenings calling leads to fill up their schedule. I worked from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday. I only took a weekend off if I had planned it out with my district manager to make sure I didn’t get behind,” Sitka said.

Factors like these strict time demands led to Wicklund’s decision not to continue with the internship. Both Wicklund and the junior student, in fact, said their mental health suffered as a result of the program. “My depression and anxiety were so bad by the time I quit that I was constantly suicidal,” the junior student said. “If you have unstable mental health, this will put you over the edge.”

In response to these dreary accounts, Stewart said a part of the internship is indeed learning resilience amid stressful situations. “Life is stressful for 20-somethings nowadays,” he said. “Part of the reason people can’t handle the stress and the time demands is because they don’t have enough practice.”

A mission of CWP, Stewart said, is providing that kind of time-management training for students, something he says they’re not learning in high school. According to Stewart, former interns five years out of college are making five times as much money as their peers because of the training the internship provides. “Our people get placed,” he said.

 

College Works in the classroom

 

Although Stewart said CWP provides ideal entrepreneurial training, its internship opportunities are not to be found on official, University-sponsored job databases.

The company is currently barred from recruiting through the University’s student and alumni database, GoldPass, said Becky Hall, director of Career Services. “College Works interns are expected to pay an up-front investment to participate in their internship program or are asked to purchase supplies for which they are not reimbursed,” Hall said.

I didn’t understand why they were trying to recruit engineers to paint houses.

According to Hall, this practice disqualifies them from representation by Career Services. “We do have a fee review process as we’re looking at organizations,” Hall said. “College Works fits those criteria, so we don’t work with College Works.”

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

CWP staff visit classrooms each fall on campus, freely asking for two minutes of a class’s time to give their pitch while distributing interest forms. Although classroom visits to promote business opportunities are permitted at faculty members’ discretion, distributing materials in the process is not. According to Hall, this falls under the university’s “Distribution of Information through Publications, Banners or Chalking” administrative policy, which states as its purpose to “minimize disruption of the educational mission and learning.”

Complaints against CWP are typically made retroactively, according to Hall, and though enforcement of this policy does not fall under the purview of career services, she has had professors reach out following a visit. “We are not made aware of that until after the fact, and so we’ve gone back and have shared this University policy language if there’s a faculty member who’s wanting to say ‘no, actually, you’re not allowed to do that.’”

The policy violation is one matter. While the two-minute intrusion may be a bargain for CWP seeking recruits from a captive audience, it’s costly when it cuts into a large-enrollment class. If one calculates the average tuition per credit between in-state and out-of-state students as a little more than $591, a 476-student course like Intro to Psychology has a collective cost of $511.66 per minute. So CWP’s two-minute pitch costs students just over $1,000 of their tuition money—all for the company’s gain.

 

Contradicting messages

Melanie Sumiec, a junior at the University, dropped out of the recruitment process after she was made aware of the negative student perception of CWP: “I didn’t continue on with the process because word eventually got around that this company was sketchy and just wanted college kids who were worried about money for cheap labor.”

Stewart credits the negative perception of CWP to students like Sumiec who only participated in the interview process or knew someone who did. “When you read those Reddits, they saw us in a class and they’ve got something to say about it, or their friend went to an interview,” Stewart said. “But they’re not ever people that really worked here, for the most part.”

While a mission of CWP is to train students in skills crucial to budding professionals, the experience is hardly right for everyone. With such broad recruitment tactics despite the program’s demands, negative experiences are to be expected. Though students like Wicklund had experiences different from their expectations, others were more keen to question the merits of a program that claims to be selective yet recruits so widely.

“It all felt very strange and shady,” Sumiec said. “I didn’t understand why they were trying to recruit engineers to paint houses.”