Friday, May 7, 2010

Cracking Down On Unpaid Internships | Why Not Just Ban College?

The US Department of Labor is cracking down on unpaid internships. The rational is that internships have become exploitative, leading to little or no benefit to interns. The D.O.L has listed 6 criteria under which unpaid internships can be offered:

  • The internship is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment – even though it includes operations of the employer’s facilities.
  • The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.
  • The intern doesn’t displace regular employees – he or she works under their supervision.
  • The employer receives no immediate advantage from the intern.
  • The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the end of the internship.
  • Both the employer and the intern understand that the intern isn’t entitled to wages.

The most important caveats are the third and fourth. Given the rhetoric around the issue, it is clear that the biggest concern the D.O.L has is that internships are replacing paid entry level positions. While I understand the concern about not replacing paid employees, preventing the employer from receiving any "immediate advantage" is ludicrous. After all, no employer would take on an intern if they didn't feel they'd receive some immediate advantage.

While I've never been an *unpaid* intern, I have had two different internships. In my last internship program, I worked alongside two unpaid interns. To say that they didn't provide any advantage to our employers would be insulting. They were often required to wake up at 5am to do field research, and earned the organization plenty of positive media attention. By this criteria, our employer should be in serious trouble.

Aside from the contribution that they made, these internships certainly paid off. I haven't seen one of them in a few months, but the other is now a full time employee with the organization. She will tell you that her internship was more valuable than anything she ever learned in school. I would agree entirely. Though I've never been an unpaid intern, I have done plenty of volunteer work. I certainly gained more marketable skills from my internships and volunteer experience than from school (and I've got a Masters degree).

If the Department of Labor is serious about cracking down on unpaid internships, maybe they should look at banning post secondary education. After all, students PAY to go to school, with no guarantee of a job after graduation. The work is often more arduous than an internship, and is far more time consuming. Four years of paying to go to school is fare more of a financial hit to students than a 3 month unpaid internship. You could argue that students go to school voluntarily, and that they have reason to believe that it will benefit them in the long run. Then again, the same argument applies to unpaid internships.

It seems that the argument against unpaid internships is based more on a class warfare mentality than actual concern for individual interns. I know some interns from this summer who are still looking for work (unsurprising, given the economy), but I know many who have moved on to rewarding jobs. I certainly don't know of any who are worse off now than they were before. If the Department of Labor is opposed to individuals increasing their long term prospects, than they might as well just ban college.

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