With the number of unpaid internships available to students continuing to rise, the Department of Labor and other state-level bodies are apparently beginning to “step up enforcement nationwide” of potential violations of minimum wage laws, the New York Times said last week. In particular, the Labor Department “says it is cracking down on firms that fail to pay interns properly and expanding efforts to educate companies, colleges and students on the law regarding internships.”
It’s no secret that internships are a way in, a way to make that first connection that will jump start your career. Ross Perlin notes that “internships have become the gateway into the white-collar work force…Employers increasingly want experience for entry-level jobs, and many students see the only way to get that is through unpaid internships.” (I recently met Ross, who is doing great work on two fronts: conducting research on endangered minority languages in southern China, around Kunming, and writing a book about the phenomenon of internships in the U.S.) My “in” into the field of international exchange and education came with an internship with Sherry and NCIV.
We touch on this subject in Working World the book, asking whether internships are perhaps exploitation, but concluding that, while certain internships may be, the overall institution of being an intern is important to career development. But we also note, I now read with interest, that the vast majority of interns will receive “no remuneration or (if you are lucky) a modest stipend.” But is that how it should be?
The Times article is hinting that it doesn’t matter what should or shouldn’t be: the law may dictate that paying interns is a necessity. But even beyond the legality of it, unpaid work is always a tough pill to swallow, especially for young professionals on thin budgets. I feel lucky that I interned with NCIV, which does provide at least a modest stipend for its interns, and got my managerial legs under Sherry, who believes that interns should always be paid for their work, even if it isn’t all that much. The same holds true here at the Alliance—we can’t pay much, but we at least give something.
I guess ultimately, when you’re looking for an internship, pay can’t be the driving factor. If you’re able to find an internship that gives you maximum professional benefit (and I would describe that as an internship that allows you to work with good people, that allows you to work on substantive projects [not just menial stuff] and own your work, and that allows you access to more people in the field with whom you can network), then pay will probably seem rather secondary, especially if that internship leads you to something good down the road.
But even so, I agree with a movement away from unpaid internships. This system (especially here in DC, where things are expensive and there is no shortage of people willing to make you pay your dues) unfairly favors those who have connections and resources to survive on when not getting paid.