Internships have been a valuable option for college students hoping for a head start on their career between semesters. But as the recession continues, companies have turned to unpaid internships as a way of saving money during these hard economic times.
“It can be very tempting if you’re laying off employees to bring in help and call it in an internship,” says John Kniering, the director of the University of Hartford Career Services department.
There has been much debate as to whether these unpaid internships are in fact legal, with states such as Oregon and California fining employers because they feel that unpaid internships violate minimum wage laws. Others disagree, claiming that unpaid internships are a “huge success.”
The Department of Labor has outlined six federal legal criteria that must be met for an unpaid internship:
- The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
- The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
- The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
- The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
- The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
- The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
Although there is no official record of the number of unpaid internships, it is hard to keep track of companies who violate these laws. Some believe it is because student interns are too afraid to complain as it may hamper their future career. Moreover, students may feel trapped into working as an unpaid intern because many programs and future employers view work experience as extremely valuable.
Ross Eisenbrey, the vice president of The Economic Policy Institute states:
“In the private sector, most of the unpaid internships are illegal because most don’t involve a structured environment, and many don’t provide any advantage to the students. They don’t get paid for the work they are doing when, in many cases, they ought to be paid at least minimum wage. It’s something that blocks career opportunities for low-income students whose families can’t afford to send them off for three months without being paid. If the family is struggling, they can’t put them in such an internship, and it’s increasingly the case that industries like fashion and publishing pretty much require new hires to have done an internship.”
Krissi Geary-Boehm, coordinator of internships and placement for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, believes that a paid internship could actually be worse than an unpaid internship. She states that if paid interns are being treated as full-time employees, then they should make more than minimum wage.
“I think what will eventually happen is that unpaid internships will have to be for college credit, and that’s the way it should be. An internship is supposed to be an educational experience, not a summer job. And that’s the problem; some of these internships are treated as entry-level jobs.”
Something to blog about
Bloggers across the nation are giving their two cents on how they feel about unpaid internships. (There is even a blog which provides updates and resources on the issue, titled “The Unfair Internships“).
- Blogger Fruzsina Eordogh wrote on Walletpop.com: “My initial reaction to the April 2 New York Times piece “The Unpaid Intern, Illegal or Not” was one of confusion. I have done a number of unpaid internships, and never in my right mind believed them to be illegal — even if at the time I was doing menial tasks… Almost everyone I know has had an unpaid internship at some point in their college life — some majors practically require it — and most of the experiences could qualify as “illegal” because they were not strictly “educational.” Granted, these folks interned at music, media, and film companies, industries known to be “abusive” of their interns. One magazine I worked for long ago used interns like cleaning ladies for the higher-up’s apartments or had them perform other degrading personal tasks in the style of “The Devil Wears Prada.”
- The Editorial Board of The Western Front writes: “The Editorial Board believes it’s time for departments to analyze whether they should continue to require internships. If paid internship opportunities in certain fields are declining, then those departments should not require students to complete an internship. When students take unpaid internships for credit, they are essentially paying to work.”
- Goingpro2010.com blogger Scott Bourne writes: “The bottom line is simple. Because most states have mis-managed their finances, they are trying every trick in the book to get some new revenue. If they can force you to pay minimum wage, then they can tax you and the intern. If you’re planning on hiring an intern this year, be sure to check your local, regional and state jurisdictions as well as federal hour/wage laws to make sure you’re in compliance. Part of going pro is accepting the responsibility that comes with running a real business. You’re always better off when you are in full compliance with all laws and regulations.”
- Steven Kent, a writer on WalletPop.com, writes about his experiences of working two unpaid internships: “Finally, my parting advice to all you unpaid interns is this: just accept the uncertainty of your position for now. There’s a certain serene confidence you gain when you simply make up your mind that you’re going to spend a few lean months in the service of something greater. You might not turn your internship into a full-time position upon graduation, no matter how hard you work, and you probably won’t fall into fabulous wealth along the way, either. But from my own experiences, I know you can proceed with this knowledge at least: if you can make it as an unpaid intern with a bit of grace, you’re ready for anything.”