The phrase ‘paid internship’ is becoming an oxymoron. And over the last several years, the demise of the paid intern has been accompanied by a huge growth in the number of unpaid internships. But some of these internships offer little or no educational experience to the students they employ. The trend toward unpaid employment has caught the attention of state and federal law enforcement officers, who cite strict federal guidelines that employers must follow when hiring students without pay. Federal and state government agencies must distinguish between beneficial unpaid internships and those that exploit students and enforce labor laws to protect students.

As reported on Apr. 2 by The New York Times, investigations into several exploitative internships have been opened by state officials and, more recently, by the U.S. Department of Labor. The acting director of the department’s wage and hour division has said that unpaid internships offered by for-profit companies are legal in only a few circumstances. Federal law requires that unpaid work by trainees adhere to six criteria. Companies can’t derive immediate benefit from the labor, the experience must be similar to that of a vocational school and the interns can’t displace paid workers.

Granted, many unpaid internships offer students valuable educational opportunities. They can also help students form connections with employers that may lead to permanent jobs. In today’s competitive job market, employers consider practical work experience crucial. Many unpaid internships provide students with this experience. And unpaid internships can fill an important hole on a student’s résumé by familiarizing them with the inner workings of an industry. Students shouldn’t be scared off by horror stories because many internships can make a big difference when searching for a job after graduation.

But some employers use students who are desperate for work experience as free labor. Some firms are known to take on “interns” to perform menial tasks that don’t have educational value. The students find themselves in the same office as professionals in their career field, but they are still far from an educational experience because they aren’t really involved. And students in particularly competitive industries may feel they have no choice but to remain in a useless unpaid job simply to have the credential on their résumé. These situations warrant government intervention to protect students.

But the most troubling problem with the growth of unpaid internships is the effect they have on the students who can’t afford them. Many students’ finances don’t allow them to spend the summer without income, and they are unable pay for the travel or housing expenses associated with an internship. But because internships are important to prospective employers, the inability of low-income students to accept unpaid internships could put them at a serious disadvantage when they look for jobs. Employers should appropriately compensate students to incentivize a diverse group of students to take internships and help level the playing field.

Students are valuable members of society and when their work contributes to the welfare of a firm, they deserve fair compensation. They should speak up when they feel they’re being exploited. And when they do, the government needs to protect them.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.