Apr520104:19 pm

NYTimes: “Unpaid internships may be illegal”

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.

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5 Responses to “NYTimes: “Unpaid internships may be illegal””

  1. Rachel says:

    And another aspect of the unpaid internship to consider: to receive academic credit for the internship through a college or university (undergrad or grad), you have to register for the credits and that equals paying tuition for your volunteer work. For my graduate program, I’m required to register for a minimum of a 5-credit internship which is 200 hours of work. This year tuition is $981 per credit, so my “professional experience” cost me nearly $5000.

  2. Juliet says:

    I really only see two alternatives. Those “internships” will now be called “volunteer work” to skirt the labor law or those internships will diminish in number. Some non-profits depend heavily on internships, and without that extra free labor, their payroll costs will either rise or they won’t be able to do the work they do.

  3. Chris says:

    From the hiring perspective, the fact that NCIV can pay that stipend is a huge draw for our internship (especially in our current economy). In this most recent round, we had a record-setting 250+ applicants for our two positions; in the end, we were able to pick two of the most exemplary candidates I have ever seen. (One major point in their favor: they were extremely thoughtful and articulate about 1) how and why they wanted to work with our organization, 2) how their prior skills and experiences could benefit our mission, and 3) asking questions that proved that they were interested, intelligent, and introspective.

    The upside of all this is that it gets our organization much-needed support from two very talented, very capable women who will keep our line of work in mind as they go on to have incredible careers. The downside is that 248+ others – many of whom had uber-impressive applications – are now out of luck (for us, for this semester, at least).

    In a sense, this is a lose-lose situation, made worse by these new internship rules. Frank, my colleague who co-manages interns with me, and I often commiserate that there is No Way we would have been selected for our internship nowadays, based on the resumes we had when we applied back in Summer 2007 and 2008. (Both of us, like Mark, got our entrees into the professional world of international work through internships with NCIV. Sherry, like many other bosses, is highly inclined to hire somebody 1) who knows how to do what her organization does and 2) whose work is a known quantity…an enormous benefit when you’re deciding who you should trust when you’re investing a salary, benefits, organizational reputation, project success, and more.) Today, we – and a lot of other, more-qualified-than-we-were people – would be totally out of luck…if not for unpaid internships (which, despite the lack of cash, have got to be better than nothing in career terms).

    On the other side, meanwhile, many of our member organizations, especially the all-volunteer and/or cash-strapped ones, absolutely rely on interns (usually unpaid, since the organization is all-volunteer and/or cash-strapped) to help with key aspects of their operations. This has the double benefit of 1) providing those interns with really wicked career experience that they couldn’t get pretty much any other way and 2) allowing those organizations to accomplish their core mission and maybe even expand their capacity to do other much-needed things.

    For all of those reasons, while I was the lucky beneficiary of getting a fairly paid internship without those connections or resources – and while I’m sure some unpaid internships really are tantamount to voluntary slave labor, so you’d better choose your organization wisely and ask good questions in your interview – I am strongly in favor of keeping unpaid internships around for the foreseeable future. Especially now, when paid internships and employment are so hard to come by, those opportunities could mean the difference between a decade of flipping burgers and a legitimate gateway into the career that they want (or an irreplaceable opportunity to learn that they don’t want the career they thought they did).

    Recommendation numero uno for those cash-strapped applicants: find a friend or relative whose basement you can bum in for a semester, either for cheap or for free. (Worked for me! Summer in a college friend’s family’s basement in Alexandria = $250, thanks to their generosity. What I gained from being poorly paid intern at an awesome organization = Priceless.)

    Recommendation numero dos: if you don’t have those connections in Washington, look for international opportunities where you do know people/can afford the cost of living. Along with World Affairs Councils, Sister Cities programs, and others, our members are all over the United States, doing international work and looking for a few good interns. I’m hoping this new policy doesn’t cramp their ability – and yours – to get some benefits that money can’t buy.

    P.S. – Looks like I’ve broken the cardinal blog rule of not writing a comment that’s longer than its post…a capital crime, given how much work I have to do, but a crime of passion, given how strongly I feel about this. Forgive me, Mark and Sherry, for I have sinned. (Grin!)

  4. [...] Citing the New York Times’ April 2010 article, “The Unpaid Interns, Legal or Not,” by Steven Greenhouse, Mark Overmann explains how unpaid internships may be against the minimum wage laws in “Unpaid internships may be illegal.”. [...]

  5. J says:

    Waiting for updates!

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