With internship applications due around the corner, many college students are hard at work polishing their resumes, getting head shots for LinkedIn, and picking out their most conservative business professional clothing for the job fairs. In exchange for their carefully-written cover letters, hours researching their companies of choice, and countless appointments spent at the Career Resource Center, the lucky students will land an internship.
Likely, an unpaid one.
For many, the prospect of working at a company in their field of choice is enough payment, especially in this economy without any jobs for college graduates. Just imagine how impressed potential employers will be when they see a resume padded with big names in the experience section. But how companies really work with interns raises not only ethical questions, but accusations of legal misconduct that should make students and companies reconsider the efficacy of unpaid internships.
Stuff You Should Know recently did a very informative podcast on implications of receiving interns in companies, and the criteria they must uphold to be a lawful unpaid internship program. Among six specifications in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the internships must be, “…similar to training which would be given in an educational environment…” and “the employer that provides training derives no immediate advantage from the [intern]…”.
The first standard that any company interested in not paying their interns must uphold is an educational experience for said interns. Many companies fulfill this requirement by partnering with universities to offer credit for internships or shadowing opportunities. However, the great fault of this loophole is that a company without an organized internship program, educational materials for students, program directors, etc. fail to provide an experience with any semblance of a learning environment. The daily duties of an unpaid intern may include answering emails, going on coffee runs or other personal errands for permanent staff. Worse yet, interns are regularly exploited for work to directly profit their employer.
The largest ethical and legal failure by companies offering unpaid internships is the expectation that an intern is expected or legally able to work on projects of the same caliber as paid employees, or for any project used to profit the company, without paying the intern. The fourth criterion of the FLSA is, “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded…” Essentially, having interns is not for the benefit of the company, but to train future leaders in one’s field. Employers should not benefit financially from any of the work of unpaid interns, as, by definition, working without being paid is blatantly illegal.
Furthermore, unpaid internships discriminate against students that cannot afford to be without income while they study. This demographic makes the choice between having real-world experience in the job field or continuing with a stable source of income that possibly has no relationship to their desired career, like a job in food service or retail. For groups that are supported by financial aid, scholarships, family contribution, or other sources, the burden of a semester or a year without paid work may not seem like a large sacrifice. How, though, can working students compete when companies intuitively prefer unpaid internship programs to ethical labor?
So, what can be done to change the unpaid internship culture?
It begins with us, the students. Many lawsuits in the U.S. have spurred because of students speaking up for their rights when a company exploits their labor in ways prohibited by the law. Just last year, Fox Searchlight closed a settlement with hundreds of wrongly-treated interns and thousands if dollars in back pay. If an internship does not comply with FLSA and its guidelines, consider speaking to a representative at your company or an advisor at your college to stand up for your rights as an intern.
Ideally, let’s stop accepting this “employer economy” mindset of the companies setting the expectations for unpaid internships. Urge your university to partner with companies that abide by the law and pay their interns, unless they incorporate a specific intern-focused program to their proposal. Aspire to work with businesses that practice ethical treatment of their employees.
In closing, let’s know our worth when it comes to applying for internships. If for nothing else, students have earned the opportunity to work at an ethical, legal internship after their writing countless cover letters, half-dozen mock interviews in the mirror, and hours on LinkedIn padding their resumes.