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The Employment Loophole Known as the “Unpaid Internship”

May 6, 2012

Pop Quiz Time!  What is the difference between and an unpaid intern and an employee?

  1.  An intern is being taught valuable new skills but receiving no pay, and an employee is involved in daily mindless drudgery but gets compensated.
  2. An intern is an employee who works for free in the vain hope of later being employable for actual money.
  3. An intern is a wealthy (often white) student who can afford to gain job experience without being compensated, an employee is a poorer (often minority) person who needs the money.
  4. An intern is a volunteer with a more socially acceptable name; an employee is someone who receives dental.

Give up on the answer?  Trick question: it all depends on who you ask, what sector the work is in, and what country’s jurisdiction the internship falls under.

To survive an internship, ingest substances such as caffeine in copious quantities.

This question of defining an internship is a salient one.  The issue of the (often) abusive nature of internships is being written about in many media sources, including this gem from the NYTimes.  Why is this matter of internships such a confusing topic?  It seems strange considering there are several clear cut laws about internships.  For instance, in the United States, for an unpaid internship in the for-profit sector to count as such, the following six criteria must ALL be met:

  1. 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
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern; 
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. 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;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

How many internships have you had that actual follow all of these rules?  *Crickets.*

Right now, I am working an unpaid internship in Jordan, for a non-profit organization.  The organization in no way follows rules 1, 2, 3 or 4, though it is very good with the letter of the law for 5 and 6.  But that’s okay: not only is this organization in Jordan and not the US, it is non-profit, which is legally allowed to employ ‘volunteers’ for no compensation.  But this issue of internships becoming merely sources of free labor for companies is a huge one, and it is becoming even more salient in these economically hard times.  In short, young college graduates have fewer job opportunities, and companies know this and prey upon them.

After witnessing the lack of jobs for young professionals in the on-going struggling economy, it seems many companies are more than willing to take advantage of interns (in a negative connotation), especially because the economy has made it easier to do so. Internships, ideally viewed as a mentor-based foundation for developing one’s career skills before moving to the ‘real world’ have, more often of late, become ‘the new entry-level job.’

If you look up the literature online about internships, one thing that will immediately jump out at you if that interns are constantly referred to as students.  There is an implicit understanding that the only ones who will work for free are college undergraduates, and that once they graduate, they will receive (and should be able to expect to receive) a paying position somewhere.  In reality, this is no longer the case, though the mindset remains.  This too is damaging.

“Full-time employment has dropped 9 percentage points among 18-to-29-year-olds since 2006, leaving only 41 percent of millennials with full-time jobs…. more recently, the Census Bureau announced that 44.7 percent of people between 16 and 29 were unemployed in 2010.  The consensus is that instead of finding “real” jobs, young professionals are willing to take on several internships, to gain experience in order make themselves more career competitive.”  This is often necessary in this time of economic crunch: I myself have seen numerous entry level positions advertised online that require the candidate to have “one full year prior job experience.”  How is one supposed to get an entry level position if a pre-requisite for such is an entry-level position?  The catch-22 of it all is breathtaking.

So there is also the other side to consider, of course: what about those college educated individuals who simply can’t, for financial reasons, even consider getting an unpaid position?  Where does this rise in unpaid internships and dearth of entry-level paid jobs leave them?   The short answer is, unless they get lucky, these college educated people will probably end up ‘underemployed’ – ie, they will work a job that does not make use of, or require, the amount of education they have received.  And this is also pretty grim.

Graduates, bright eyed, bushy tailed, and optimistic- the perfect fodder for next year’s bunch of unhappy interns!

It seems that for most white collar jobs, the internship is now as requisite for success as having a resume, a suit, and computer skills.

And even if one is wealthy enough to be able to afford to work without pay for a while, the internship itself, and the lack of oversight over the intern’s labor, is also troubling.  Interns are also receiving less training than before, as well as fewer rights.  “A serious problem surrounding unpaid interns is they are often not considered employees and therefore are not protected by employment discrimination laws” which can result in their being not allowed to file sexual harassment complaints or similar legal actions.  Additionally, the ‘right to receive training’ is often being sidelined as well, with many interns completing much more non-educational, menial labor and unskilled tasks than training or skilled tasks.

Essentially, an intern should be compensated for his or her work: not with money, but with the ability to advance a career, both in terms of skill sets learned, as well as via having the job experience on a resume.  This is increasingly no longer the case, and the abuse of the internship system should be tightly controlled, and stopped.  If the government or companies won’t make a stand on this issue, then it has to be up the potential intern.

Or, to wit:  To have an internship or not to have an internship, that is the question.  Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageously menial tasks or to take arms against the entire system and by opposing, possibly end economic futures.  To labor, unpaid, no more- and by this refusal to say you end the heartache, and the thousands nasty daily shocks that licking envelopes in a windowless basement is heir to….

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2012 8:48 AM

    Hit on the nail on the head with this one, Luca. And unpaid internships aren’t just for undergrads anymore: while I don’t want to discourage you from law school eventually, a series of unpaid internships seems to be required for any paying legal job––and law students are taking them. This is because the legal job market is in shambles. (I’m on my second one this summer. Luckily, the last one was actually a positive experience. Then again, it was under the law school’s aegis, so it had to be good. Hopefully, the next one––not under the law school––will be the same.) I once went to an extremely depressing international law careers panel, which was a bunch of recent J.D.s talking about their moving from one internship to another.

    But the fact that most internships are unpaid actually was a push for me to go straight through to law school from college: I couldn’t afford to wait. And I agree with your fundamental point that unpaid internships are rife with abuses.

    There’s one reason, however, that internships don’t get addressed: they’re temporary. The problems for the individual intern are (hopefully) transient, so employers think you’ll get over it; and because you move on to the next thing, you lose standing to sue, file complaints, etc. (Employers don’t fire you because you’re temporary, which loses you one major weapon in an employment discrimination lawsuit: negative job action.) Obviously, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems in the aggregate; the whole system’s pretty much shot-through. Can interns––or that contemporary creation, serial interns––join or form a union with other temporary workers? I’d advise against a class action lawsuit, though. Those are getting harder and harder to pull off.

  2. June 20, 2012 1:30 PM

    I’ve done three internships. It’s simply unpaid labor. There is no “learning” or “getting the skills for future career.” It’s just bitch work the company wants you to do without giving you money. It’s such a fraudulent system – I can’t believe it has developed the legitimacy it has.

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