I was one of about 50 high school and college students interning without pay at a non-profit community service group last summer. On a handful of occasions, the interns outnumbered the volunteers we supposedly supervised doing various projects in Detroit. Had the organization written a job description, it would have read, “Do nothing.” So, we labored alongside the volunteers — devoid of any real responsibility. With little intern work to do, why did they hire so many bodies?

Why not?

Parents have a rosy, innocent picture of internships in their mind — painted with tenured professionals and mentors, invaluable knowledge and career-enhancing networking for their children.

Employers, however, increasingly view internships more nefariously as free labor. Students, more depressingly, see them as mere points on a résumé.

Over the last several months, when summer internship applications are typically due, it’s not uncommon to overhear students’ remarks along the lines of, “I’ll sweep floors, I’ll get coffee, I’ll seduce and poison the CEO of a competing firm. I don’t care as long as it’s an internship.”

In today’s job market, it’s not difficult to understand this mindset. Since 2008, fewer students are graduating from colleges with jobs already in hand. A 2011 The New York Times article reported that only 56 percent of the class of 2010 had at least one job by spring of the next year — a drastic drop from 90 percent in 2006. Fear not — it gets bleaker. Of those employed, only half of the jobs required degrees.

The pressure to pad your résumé — that one sheet of paper that acts as your introduction to potential employers — is intensifying. For those who aren’t titling themselves “Nourishment Specialist” for baking cupcakes for a club, internships are essentially mandatory. Things aren’t looking cheery — perhaps you’d be crazy not to jump on an opportunity to sweep a law firm’s floors.

Studies are supporting student’s suspicions. A 1992 study by Northwestern University found only 17 percent of students had internship experience. The National Association of Colleges and Employers annually surveys 50,000 students from 559 colleges, including the University of Michigan. In its 2012 report, they found more than half of the students “had an internship or co-op experience.” Quite a difference in 20 years.

Unfortunately, the ratio has shifted toward more unpaid internships in recent years — about half of those surveyed by NACE didn’t receive compensation. While some businesses are struggling alongside the rest of the country, more are looking for people to do work for their companies free of charge — extorting desperation for profit.

The role of interns becoming unpaid custodians and baristas isn’t new, and is almost institutionalized in the country. However, unpaid interns performing these tasks are technically prohibited under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

In response to several states beginning to crack down on abuses, in 2010 the U.S. Department of Labor issued a reminder to employers, which included the six factors the department uses to determine the legality of unpaid internships. The first four are especially relevant: the training must be similar to vocational or academic instruction; it must benefit the intern; the intern cannot replace a paid employee; and the employer doesn’t receive any “immediate advantage” from the intern’s work.

If the guidelines were followed strictly, nearly every unpaid internship would be in jeopardy, but the Dept. of Labor regulations seem illogical. Couldn’t an employer pay an employee to do any task an intern might perform? Shouldn’t the relationship be mutually beneficial if the intern excels and contributes new ideas? Isn’t hands-on training more beneficial than passive observation?

The guidelines were based on a 1947 Supreme Court decision, Walling v. Portland Terminal Co., and relate more to blue-collar training. In effect, they’re outdated and therefore ignored.

Regardless, it’s unethical for employers to expect interns to hemorrhage thousands of dollars living in New York or D.C. sweeping floors in exchange for a résumé line. The steep price tag of unpaid internships away from home creates a quasi-elitist system. For many students, accepting an unpaid position isn’t financially feasible. As a result, those who can afford them have the résumés to prove it.

Besides increased employer conscience, universities should be part of the solution. They should create more programs like the University’s Public Service Intern Program. PSIP guides students looking for internships in Washington, D.C., and creates blacklists of organizations past-year’s students have had negative experiences with. Secondly, to address the increasing number of unpaid positions, colleges can increase fellowships to finance an unpaid experience — especially those in the social sciences, where less funding exists. Most importantly, colleges need to simplify and expand means for turning internships into credit hours.

On top of what colleges can do, students should weigh the benefits of speaking up if compensation is deserved — a risky move to take. But, I can’t imagine I’ll bring that up when my bosses ask me to run to Starbucks this summer. Cream and sugar?

Andrew Weiner can be reached at anweiner@umich.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @AndrewWeiner.

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