Unpaid Internships? Excuse Me, But I Don’t See the Problem

If you have managed people and been on the job very long, you probably know that there are three kinds of workplace issues:

  • Big and important ones;
  • Small and annoying ones;
  • Loud and overblown ones.

I’ve dealt with all three, but for my money, it’s the loud and overblown issues that take up the most time and generate the greatest amount of heartburn.

And it’s the ongoing flap over unpaid internships, one of the loudest and most overblown issues of all, that always seems to make me reach for the Maalox.

Are unpaid interns impacting the job market?

Recently, an unpaid intern sued fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar and the Hearst Corporation claiming, according to The New York Times Media Decoder blog, that they violated “federal and state wage and hour laws by not paying her even though she often worked there full time.” It’s unusual for interns to sue, and I had a little about it here at TLNT, but the story quickly came and went and that was that.

But now, online magazine Slate has jumped into the fray with a story titled, Get Your Own Damn Coffee — Most Unpaid Internships Are Illegal, Why Don’t More Interns Protest?  Their point, besides the fact that they believe that “there is widespread agreement that unpaid interns are being exploited,” is that “the real victims of internships are the majority of Americans who can’t afford to work for free and are thus squeezed out of employment opportunities.”

Yes, according to Slate, unpaid internships are depressing the fragile, post recession job market.

Here’s the crux of the argument, according to the article:

Internships save firms roughly $600 million every year, reports Ross Perlin in Intern Nation: How To Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy. In a recession-stricken market, employers have little trouble finding bright young things willing to exchange free labor for a foot in the door. …

Also, there are surprisingly few complaints by interns, because most don’t wish to bite the hand that may feed them someday. “Unpaid interns are usually too scared to speak out … because they are frightened it will hurt their chances of finding future jobs in their industry,” said Adam Klein, … one of (Xuedan) Wang’s (the former intern who sued) lawyers. …”

Yes, unpaid internships can lead to real jobs

If I were trying this case in court, I’d be happy to stipulate that all of this is probably true. But, for most interns (including me in my college internship days), it is completely and totally besides the point — as Slate’s Katy Waldman, who wrote this article, inadvertently makes herself:

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The … problem for anyone wishing to organize interns against maltreatment is that the variety of intern experience is so vast. Some internships are dismal and exploitative; others enthralling and useful; some a mix. Here’s a partial list of things I did as an intern at a literary magazine: transcribe hours of interviews, stuff envelopes, send rejection slips, sort mail, write for the blog, fetch lunch for editors, discuss poems with editors, drink unlimited free coffee and Diet Coke, quarter limes for parties, attend parties, search for Twitter quotes (and freak out when the magazine followed me on Twitter), fact-check. My next internship also was a mix of interesting and lame — and it helped me get a job.”

Yes, you read that right. This writer from Slate who seems to believe that unpaid internships are an exploitative pox on society actually got a job out of one of them.

Keeping college kids from getting their big break

I did, too, and so did a lot of other people I know, because my college internship as a Metro reporter at the Los Angeles Times gave me a little experience and a big glimpse of the world I was hoping to start a career in.

A year ago, when the U.S. Department of Labor announced their crackdown on unpaid internships, I wrote here at TLNT about why this was a bad thing:

This is going to be the death knell for college internships as we knew them. You be the judge of whether that’s good or bad, but take it from me, it will certainly mean that a lot fewer students get the opportunity to get their foot in the door.

Maybe that’s okay, but had that policy been around 30 years ago, well, it would have changed my life dramatically. Is that what we really want the U.S. Department of Labor to be doing?

Yes, maybe they will help a few interns get paid, but it’s more likely that all this will do is keep a lot of young people looking for that big break from getting their foot-in-the-door like I did.”

I don’t think anything has changed since I wrote that, except that an unpaid intern made a big stink by suing the Hearst Corporation, and knee-jerk coverage like the story on Slate continues to try to exploit the issue.

Between the college crunch, never-ending tuition hikes, and internships getting litigated away, our up-and-coming employees are struggling to find their way into the working world. We’re going to regret that, I fear, somewhere down the road. When that happens, let’s still hope we can do something about it.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


1 Comment on “Unpaid Internships? Excuse Me, But I Don’t See the Problem

  1. John, but there is a problem with unpaid internships.  I actually checked out the guidelines from the DOL for determining if an internship is paid or unpaid.  So, if the Hearst intern can argue that her employer violated those guidelines, she has a case.  Though, if her main argument is working full-time then she doesn’t have one, because as long as the work duties align with what has been designated unpaid, it’s fine because I don’t believe there’s a stipulation about exempt and non-exempt jobs.  And while I think those guidelines are vague, here are some concrete issues with which I do have a problem.
    1.  Internships for enrolled students that offer college credit instead of a wage or stipend aren’t unpaid, in fact, the student pays for them, because college credit isn’t free, and credits are expensive.  Obviously, this will vary by college or university, but the fact of the matter is that the student is actually paying to work for free. 
    2. I can easily see taking an unpaid internship during the academic year, when students can rely on financial aid (scholarships, grants, or loans), as well as a part-time job.  But for summer internships, students usually cannot get financial aid since if they’re only doing the internship, it’s not for enough credits to be considered a full-time student–eligible for financial aid.  Then let us say that the internship is a city away from their hometown or college, so they can’t stay with parents or get discounted summer housing at university.  So, you now have someone relocating for the summer, having to pay for academic credit, and not getting paid. 
    Can some students manage to go to an internship, and get a job on the side?  Sure, although, it’s certainly easier if they internship is only part time so they can also have a part time job.  However, this is a very tricky financial situation, so these unpaid summer internships can often only be taken by students with somewhat privileged backgrounds (read as “parents who can afford to subsidize their child’s expenses”).  This perpetuates the cycle of privilege rewarding privilege, and “have-nots” continuing to miss out on opportunities to improve quality of life. 
    I apologize for the verbose nature of my post, but this is a topic near and dear to me.  I was very lucky to get an internship in NYC the summer before I graduated.  But NYC is expensive, and I would not have been able to take the internship without getting paid.  And, this internship experience landed me my job.  So I would’ve sacrificed this opportunity had it been unpaid, because I couldn’t afford it.  And when I say afford, I mean a cheap NYC apartment for $650/mo for 3 months (plus $650 deposit), plus commuting expenses and food.  This was a fulltime internship, and only working on the weekends would not have allowed me to make enough money to live there.  It could be argued that though diligent financial planning this could’ve also been achieved, but I would’ve had to save about $3,000.  Unfortunately, I had tuition, rent, and other bills during the academic school year–another thing that privileged students have an easier time with. 
    And yes, I do believe that some employers take advantage of the fact that they can get free labor, but that’s an issue to take up with the DOL and their guidelines.  I’m not saying the entire system should change or a massive crackdown is appropriate, but I do hope that you recognize that complaining is justified, and there’s room for improvement.

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