What? We Can’t Use Slave Labor and Call It an Internship?!?

Why, that’s positively unAmerican:

Convinced that many unpaid internships violate minimum wage laws, officials in Oregon, California and other states have begun investigations and fined employers. Last year, M. Patricia Smith, then New York’s labor commissioner, ordered investigations into several firms’ internships. Now, as the federal Labor Department’s top law enforcement official, she and the wage and hour division are stepping up enforcement nationwide.

Good. As I’ve kvetched before, the fact that “internship” in the business world appears to have gone from meaning “a paid apprenticeship to learn professional skills” to “Unpaid schmuck kid doing scut work we’d otherwise have to pay someone to do” appalls me. That’s not what internships are for, on either side of the equation.

This would be the point where someone wrings their hands and says that in this economy if there weren’t internships like this, there wouldn’t be internships at all. And this would be the point where I say this is a feature, not a bug, since an internship designed to exploit some kid is worse than no internship, since it doesn’t benefit the kid a damn and companies lose focus of the mission of internships, and instead see them merely as spigots of free labor. Yeah, kill that asap.

This isn’t say every unpaid internship is exploitation; it is to say you’re going to get most of this sort of exploitation in unpaid internships. If we’re about to see this sort of nonsense hacked back, I’m all for that.

94 Comments on “What? We Can’t Use Slave Labor and Call It an Internship?!?”

  1. I had a couple of unpaid internships. One was at a human rights organization. I didn’t mind doing free work there.

    Alot of internships are paid in the software development world. They are not paid alot, but the expectations usually are not really high. These tend to be the first things cut in a bad economy.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly. However paying them doesn’t mean the internship gains any actual value beyond words on a resume. I worked for a company that pays interns but doesn’t teach them anything. It uses them for mindless tasks that they would normally pay a temp to do. Stuffing envelopes and the like. Interestingly, all the interns are children or relatives of employees.

  3. It’s a little different if you’re doing it for a nonprofit. I’d view that as public service.

    Some businesses are using paid interns to pick up the slack for full-time staff they laid off in the last year.

  4. Interesting the paid vs unpaid internship seems to be divided based somewhat on industry. As an engineer all of my internship opportunities were paid internships. On the other hand my wife has a degree in applied psychology, not only did her degree require that she complete an internship, but almost all of the internships were unpaid. Apparently engineering interns are more valuable to business than soft science interns.

  5. I’m curious what happens to the money the companies are fined. Do the past interns get some of it, since they are the ones who did the free labor?

  6. So, tell me, how do you feel about those kids that sell magazines door to door? Because I think they are exploited by truly evil people who promise them money for college, but pay them nothing. They seem far more vulnerable than the type of kid who ends up in an unpaid internship and I’d love to see the feds shut that down.

    Especially as they ship the kids across state lines to work, so that they can’t quit and get home again.

  7. Back when I was in college (years and years ago) about half the internships were paid. Those that did pay offered minimum wage, which at the time was a couple of bucks an hour. (Ooh, I just gave my age away.)

    When some of us get together to talk about the grunt work we did in college, it starts to resemble The Four Yorkshire-men Sketch.

  8. I used to be an internship coordinator, and thank God for this law. It’s shameful, what employers will try to get away with just because their employee is a student. The worst were employers who wanted a website built. Usually they would’ve priced it out with several professional designers already, and decided they didn’t like the numbers they were hearing… so they’d expect some college kid to be eager to do it, “to build their portfolio”, even though the job really required a pro designer’s skill. They inevitably turned out to be terrible employers; they had no respect for the student’s time or skill. Surprise.

    It’s true that some employers will stop offering internships as a result of this. But since students weren’t getting much out of those internships anyway (and in fact, like most unpaid interns, they were effectively paying to work — the commute, a work wardrobe, housing if they moved to another city for the job, etc.), it’s not like that’s a great loss.

  9. I find myself wishing that being pro labor didn’t have a partisan lean to it, but sadly, it does. The prove, effective way to get concessions across the board from employers (even if you’re working for free) is collective bargaining.

    Sure, organized labor has it’s flaws, but without it, a single employee’s gains only come if they have either the time and effort to get lawyers, or a humane boss. And even when they do come, they’re rarely shared.

    It’s also notable that the Federal Labor Department’s secretary (Patricia Smith’s boss) is the first actual pro-labor person in the seat in 8 years. The secretary before her, Elaine Chao was a member of The Heritage Foundation, and was notorious for blatantly ignoring [PDF link] as many wage-and-hour complaints as she could get away with.

    Wage and hour violations are a form of theft. If a company contracts for wages, and violates that contract by not paying what’s owed, they are stealing money from employees. If an employee steals form an employer, they can go to jail. If an employer steals, all they do is pay a fine if the complaint ever goes anywhere, and the employee is frequently just fired if a complaint is made.

    The idea that it’s a conservative value to support corporations in this sort of thing has always baffled me about the blue collar roots of the Tea Party people. None of them seem at all concerned about theft that effects them on a very direct level. Stockholm syndrome? Sheer stupidity? I have no clue. You can chart the things that FOX news generates editorial outrage about, and wage and hour violations are just not represented. They don’t get much representation in the center leaning MSM either, but at least some of it shows up.

  10. I went to Antioch College, where every other quarter, you had to go and do a co-op job. Because of my financial circumstances (no parents to fall back on), I had to take only the paid ones–and at that time, there were enough to choose from.

    These experiences were invaluable–not just for me, but for the employers as well. I shudder at the thought of not being able to have done them because a company didn’t want to shell out minimum wage.

  11. I don’t think that line about college by the people selling magazines door to door is true. This is a marketing gimmick to make people feel bad about not buying overpriced subscriptions. It is a little like charities that send you free stuff that you do not ask for. In the first case, they appeal to your sense of charity. In the second case, they appeal to your need to reciprocate.

  12. Well, I just entered the search string ‘publisher internship’ in a corporation whose name doesn’t rhyme with evil, and the first result was this –
    ‘If you’re still working on your degree, an internship may be the perfect way to experience the inner-workings of the publishing industry. Some are paid, many offer college credit, and all provide invaluable knowledge that may help you get your foot in the door when it is time to look for a full-time job.’ http://www.bookjobs.com/internships.php

    Admittedly, these are generally the sort of internship, designed with (presumably, university) students in mind, where pay has never been a major focus. And yet, the long list of publishers which follows this blurb are likely to the sort of place where a president to be of a professional writers association can apply at least a bit of pressure. HarperCollins, for example, where unpaid, academic credit only internships seem to be quite common.

    Because it would be horrible to have an industry feel that unpaid labor is a useful tool – from the HarperCollins links –
    ‘HarperCollins Children’s Books seeks Editorial Interns to join the Tween and Teen Editorial departments for the spring semester.’ Do note the plural. They are also looking for an unpaid publicity intern (academic promotion being the only reward, unless self-promotion is an acquired skill being picked at 9-5 style jobs at major corporations).

    And look at the opportunities to learn being offered to the unpaid editorial help –
    ‘Perform administrative and editorial duties and assist in coordinating the publication process from manuscript to book.

    Type correspondence, memos, and other related items; prepare and respond to routine correspondence.

    Open and sort mail; makes travel arrangements and appointments; maintain and update files and records; answer telephones and take messages as needed.

    Return rejected manuscripts; assist in preparing copyrights and permissions information and obtain information from various sources.

    Monitor the manufacturing schedule; maintain communication with authors and agents; read, edit, judge manuscripts, publicity and promotion, copyediting and design process and illustrations procurement.

    Write jacket copy, flap copy, sales notes, plan cards and assist others in department as needed.

    Work with editing manuscripts.’

    Well, nice to see how the publishing industry uses unpaid labor, considering how some authors are so dedicated to the proposition that without the publishing industry providing jobs, people would be working for nothing but generally intangible rewards, meaning that few people could afford to be involved in the process. Though it seems like the intangible allure of academic credit is sufficient for HarperCollins, especially considering that the student is most likely paying for the college course. I think a major corporation calls such conditions ‘win-win’ – after all, they are also involved in the college textbook industry, too.

  13. There’s a contradiction in the film industry regarding interns (let’s assume they’re all unpaid). The vast majority of reputable productions won’t take on an intern unless s/he can document that they’re receiving school credit for the internship. Otherwise, the interns couldn’t be covered by the Production’s insurance and that just won’t happen in a business acutely aware of their liability. And since most of those productions are union gigs, it’s likely those interns will be doing the mindless tasks that save the production from having to hire (and pay) entry level Production Assistants.

    In the really low-budget world of production, they’ll take anyone they can get their hands and shove them into any slot possible. On an ultra low-budget show, you’ll see a minimum of hired positions — say a Gaffer an Best Boy in the Electric Department and then the rest of the warm bodies filled in with interns. The people who don’t get hired suffer and the unpaid interns are certainly being exploited. They’re also probably learning a lot more than their counterparts on the big shows.

  14. This goes without saying, but it depends on who is hiring you and what your skills are. My first programming internship paid substantially more than any job I’d ever had up to that point, but I think I was really lucky.

    Parents, if your kids insist on being a visual arts major, make sure they take at least a couple courses in programming or sysadmin or something. It’s a good fallback skill to have.

  15. @ Josh Jasper; interesting link, but what I didn’t find in that testimony was a total number of complaints filed and how many total cases were bungled. Being a government employee, my feeling is that some federal employees either try to do as little real work as possible or have incentives to close cases with little or no investigation to reach performance review objectives. In my job, we previously had a set number of cases we were expected to resolve before management realized that the quality of the work was not up to par. My feeling is that collective bargaining is all well and good, but that the union leadership, over time, becomes more concerned with extracting as many concessions as possible without regard to the financial health of the company. We all want to be well paid for our work but I wish that management and union could work together better.

  16. However paying them doesn’t mean the internship gains any actual value beyond words on a resume.

    Uh, besides the “actual value” of the money they get paid, you mean?

  17. I was an intern at a newspaper when I was 17 and it was a great experience. I did have to do some grunt work but I also got to write and eventually garnered my first byline out of it.

    This led to a paying gig at the paper. This is what an internship should be. A chance to learn a skill which will then make you valuable to someone. Not free labor.

  18. I’m entirely for ending BS unpaid labor gigs. But as a startup person, this troubles me a little, because it is going to mean fewer useful internships as well.

    I was just talking with somebody who has been at a startup for 2.5 of the company’s 3 years. She started as an unpaid, fresh-from-college intern, because they had no money to pay anybody, but she really wanted to gain startup experience, and they could use the scut labor.

    She’s now managing a few people and is a shareholder in a company that I fully expect to get acquired over the next few years. She’s had incredible experience, exactly the sort of experience you need if you’re going to start your own company one day.

    It seems weird to me that with laws against unpaid internships, the company would have had to say, “No, you can’t work here for free, no matter how much you want to.” With no experience and without the internship, she would probably be an assistant office manager somewhere now.

  19. @11 S. Miller

    A few years ago they busted one of these groups in my neighborhood. The people running it enticed the more motivated kids from poor neighborhoods with promises of college scholarships, then they packed them into vans and drove them several states away where they barely fed them, housed them in deplorable conditions, and in some cases beat them if they said they wanted to quit.

    I expect that anybody will use the line “I’m earning money for college” to make a sale, but some of the people who show up at the door really believe it.

  20. I had a very valuable unpaid internship at a non-profit artists organization not long ago, even though I graduated a long time ago. I really wanted the experience for my resume, since I’d like to be working in that field eventually. Even though I got no pay and no college credit, I would do it all again in a heartbeat. They were a great organization to work for.

    However, I also had an internship on the other side of the coin, where the employer only had unpaid labor and no paid positions. Although these were college students and would receive credit, these were not educational and the employer only wanted to cut costs down by not having any paid employees. We all worked jobs that were obviously not meant for interns. I don’t know if it’s that way in the rest of the talent industry as this was a talent agency, but I think it was shameful the way we were treated.

  21. I’ve always been of the opinion that being paid for an internship is a benefit, rather than a requirement. The whole point is to gain experience and, later on, be able to say on your resume: ‘I worked in that company for so long as an in intern.’

    Because internship means experience, no matter the relevance, and when it comes to getting a job, most of the time they will require some form of experience.

    Which, of course, doesn’t mean I’d object if they paid me as an intern. That’s like owning the winning lottery ticket and saying: ‘No thanks, you can keep the money.’

  22. There is so much abuse of unpaid internships at for-profit companies that they should just do away with them altogether. Their prevalence strongly disadvantages students who need paying work, means that there are fewer entry level/low skills jobs, and gets companies in the habit of not seeing employees as human beings with financial needs which should be covered by their salary. And talking with students, more and more new grads are finding that entry level jobs which used to be paid are being converted into unpaid “internships.”

    I went by an Anthropologie store in a fancy mall near Boston and they had a sign in the window looking for an intern (must be receiving college credit) to do their windows and store displays.

    HA!!! I just proved my own point. I went to google to look up who the parent company of Anthropologie is (Urban Outfitters) and I found this on Wikipedia:

    On November 27, 2009, the firm drew the attention of the Swedish press for denying collective bargaining rights to employees at their Stockholm store by making all 48 workers redundant and re-hiring them through employment agency Academic Work. In response to the move, ombudsman Jimmy Ekman called for tougher laws to prevent other firms denying collective bargaining rights in this way.

    Unpaid internships just help management justify these attitudes.

  23. Again another difference between areas. I’m in the (hard) sciences, and most of the internships here are funded by the National Science Foundation at universities or national labs/observatories. Which meant that you do get paid (we got a stipend, plus free lodgings and discounted meals, plus travel, plus a paid trip to an academic conference) and there is some oversight to make sure you aren’t just used as the bottle-washer or the ‘guy who presses buttons on the computer’. It’s considered a chance to entice good students into your grad program, plus a way to get small research projects done. (I basically was going through data my adviser had collected from his thesis and trying to do something else with it.)

  24. Hmm. Let’s see. The slaves didn’t have a choice in the matter, these interns do. So I’m sensing a bad analogy here.

    So let’s rephrase this a bit. “What? I can’t be allowed to try to get any job I’m qualified for at the wages I’m willing to accept?”

    And yes. Yes that is un-American. At least for large portions of the USA.

  25. An unpaid internship is only valuable to the intern if they get something back for their work — college credit, skills and connections, or the chops to be able to say, “I worked on/with X”, where X is a recognized name in the industry. Otherwise, an internship in an organization where you don’t make any money, don’t learn anything relevant to your field or end up doing something that would normally be paid well, can’t network, and have more or less received no other benefit is no better than working at Pizza Hut. At least there you get a free meal every shift. I wonder how many businesses have some type of reciprocity agreements with the local colleges: you provide a supply of semi-talented labor for which we don’t have to pay anything in the form of required internships, and we kick back a donation or two. We both end up looking good.

  26. Skip:

    “So let’s rephrase this a bit”

    And in rephrasing, let’s attempt to define internships as things that they by law are not, so we can make a political point that is not relevant to this particular discussion.

    No, Skip. Don’t even bother with that in this particular thread.

  27. Not_scottbot @ 12:

    And look at the opportunities to learn being offered to the unpaid editorial help –

    Without disagreeing with the general point of this post, I do want to point out that these tasks are exactly — and in some cases beyond — what would be expected of an editorial assistant in his or her first year on the job. So yes, this is excellent preparation, actually. I would happily hire someone as an EA if they succeeded at the internship as listed.

    -Former editorial assistant

  28. I had an internship with the Washington Post my sophomore year. It was unpaid, but they did provide a transportation allowance so I at least wasn’t losing money on it. It’s the first programming-related thing I got to put on my résumé, and I learned some Python, Perl, Javascript, and sed. I learned a lot more “real world” programming stuff than what I was learning in a classroom at the time (and for classroom, I was paying, rather than neutral). Picked up a lot of *nix tips too from some of the guys I was working with. So I really don’t mind it.

    Besides, the next internship paid me about 3x what minimum wage was at the time, so I don’t doubt having that experience helped me moving forward.

  29. As a university student, if I’m going to give away my labour for free to do scut work at all, personally I’d rather volunteer for a non-profit of some kind; one can get all kinds of experience this way. This summer, I’ve volunteered to help write grant applications and a weekly newsletter for a just-getting-started urban community-supported agriculture group. (All of us grant-writing volunteers have been told that if we can find a grant that will let us get paid, we should go ahead and apply for it, though.) With any luck, this will give me a nice little resume boost, some useful experience with writing grant applications (heading into graduate school, this seems like it will be a good thing to know), and maybe leave me enough time to work at a job that will pay me, too. At the same time, my unpaid labour gives the program a chance to get off the ground. I feel like this is a better use of my unpaid time than, say, stuffing envelopes or filing for a major bank.

    The start-up company example that William@18 brought up is a trickier example, because an unpaid intern could learn a lot of useful skills, but unlike the group I’m volunteering with, the start-up company is presumably going to make money at some point, and I think there’s an injustice there even if the intern in question says she’s okay with that. That said, there are six criteria linked from the NYT article that suggest that a situation like this could be allowable. Presumably in a start-up company, an unpaid intern wouldn’t be displacing paid employees, so as long as the intern is closely supervised by regular employees employees, is given tasks and training that are to her benefit and similar to what she might learn in an educational program (which doesn’t prohibit occasional envelope-stuffing), and the employer doesn’t derive immediate advantage from the work of the intern (which, in a start-up situation, seems entirely possible), so it seems like this would be permissible.

    In contrast, I used to work in a retail branch of a bank, and people did occasionally “volunteer” to do unpaid labour. I don’t think that would have met the test: the bank would have certainly benefited from having someone do all of the filing without having to pay them, the hypothetical “intern” wouldn’t have actually been able to learn much due to the privacy laws, and it definitely wouldn’t have been training remotely like what one might learn in a finance program.

  30. Interns ruined the movies – from an ex-Corman employee

    I will tell you that the intern thing has killed Hollywood – that is, it’s killed the version of Hollywood where people who weren’t upper class white kids able to live on mommy and daddy’s trust fund were able to break in to positions such as studio development executives and screenwriters, where they might have some eventual influence on what gets made. The result is what you see today – bad remakes of dreck TV some moron remembers liking back when they were 7 years old.

  31. Konrad @22, how much value can an internship really have if it means “I did scutwork for free”? If a company is willing to actually pay an intern, it strongly implies that they want to get some value back for their money; you know, by training the person and having them be a useful member of the organization, albeit at a very much entry level.

    The people bemoaning the death of internships ought to put the blame where it belongs – on companies that have made ‘intern’ a worthless term.

    I always thought that “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” was an American concept, myself, but Skip apparently thinks if your morality evolved past the Gilded Age you’re a goddamn pinko.

  32. Don’t know if it’s the same now, but back when I started out, all internships in entertainment (specifically live action TV) were unpaid. Most shows figured they had free help for a semester and were happy about it — and worked the kids like full-timers on the days they showed up. If you were lucky, you got on a show that reimbursed you for mileage.

    That being said, at the end of the semester anyone that wanted full-time employment usually got it (at a whopping $150.00 a week!).

  33. But I thought he was a piñata!

    Josh @9 – which is why it’s so nice that wage and hour laws such as California’s impose really nasty penalties. They’re specifically designed to make playing games with wages to fail on a cost-benefit analysis, which is of course why corporate interests here are perpetually trying to gut those laws, usually under the guise of “employee choice”* – our employees choose to work through their breaks, they choose to do back-to-back ten-hour shifts, and so on. Bright-line rules with triple penalties for noncompliance discourage that sort of thing.

    Interestingly, the DoL has rules about when an intern really is an intern and when she’s being used to dodge wage and hour laws; it’s on page 8 of this exciting government document. For example, the benefit is supposed to flow to the intern, ‘cuz it’s training, and not supposed to be the intern paying the employer for the privilege of licking envelopes.

    *See? See? It WAS a relevant snideity after all!

  34. Another abused deal in the system is salaried employees. Employer “I don’t have to pay them OT? let’s make em all executives”

  35. My high school internship was unpaid, but it set me on the path to not on my college degrees, but my career in libraries. In that sense, it’s paid off in spades (well, librarians aren’t paid enough to buy spades, but we can rent) for me. My internship an academic library saw me moving from department to department on a weekly basis. So one week I’d be in processing, the next shelving, the next sitting at the reference desk observing and being a bit of a runner. The person who oversaw my internship made a real effort to move me around so that I not only got a great sense of all that goes on in the library, but helped the staff as well. Everyone was just lovely and they thanked me profusely when my internship ended.

    I know that sounds polly-anna (they did bake me a cake and I was on their Christmas card list for years) but that’s what an internship should do for young people. Give them a positive introduction to a field. The staff get some help and the firm makes good connections with a school or the community.

    A good friend of mine’s daughter just left an internship at a law firm where she was put in the copier room, given a stool and told to “assist with copies.” This turned out to mean every person in the office came in, handed her a document and said “200 copies, 20 minutes” and left. The young woman has a BA and was taking a few months to save up for law school. She thought an internship would be a good way to gain experience. Shameful.

  36. One big problem I see with unpaid internships is how the fact that they’re unpaid means that only students who come from well-off backgrounds can take them. That means that any student who needs to make money in order to survive is barred from getting the kind of experience / resume building / networking that could lead to their moving up in the work world after college. Unpaid internships are a nifty way to help give wealthier kids a leg up while penalizing poorer kids, but neatly disguising it as a meritocracy.

  37. My student teaching is considered an internship. Over the course of the four months I will have spent a total of two months doing everything my cooperating teacher does. The classroom experience is invaluable and I am getting my money’s worth. However due to the time requirements (on the school’s schedule) I am severely limited in my ability to work outside for money to cover fuel, supplies, food, etc. The school benefits from having another “teacher” (they have pulled my cooperating teacher several times to cover for absent teacher’s in other classrooms) that they do not have to pay out of their budget. I would be nice if my tuition was reduced since my ability to earn income is severely limited (yes I can have loans but that is not income).

  38. I have always believed that if a company or organization has to pay an intern, then it will actively work to (a) attract the best interns it can find and (b) train them to do something useful to get the best value for its money. This is clearly a win-win for employer and intern — as it should be.

    As you’ve observed, to do otherwise is too often to avoid paying someone to do menial tasks.

    Dr. Phil

  39. Internships are supposed to provide educational value in return for the loss of income. But, even paid internships often involve very little pay, which leads to an inevitable temptation for the organization to hire “interns” instead of full-time employees.

    I’m not sure how to counter that temptation, except with some sort of regulatory oversight. I speak as a survivor of another type of internship – one of those where we spent 36-48 hour stretches schlepping around the hospital in scrubs, learning a little medicine and doing a lot of noneducational scut work.

    When they enacted an 80-hour-per-week limit for medical residents, the hospital district where I trained nearly went bankrupt because of all the employees they had to hire – to replace the work the residents had been doing.

  40. They’re even not imposing any new regulations; they’re just enforcing existing laws. Why should anybody be surprised that companies can be punished for breaking the law?

    On second thought, forget I asked that.

  41. From the other side, I would be glad to have no internships so I wouldn’t be pressured every year to hire an intern. Ours are paid; not-for-profit company. Frequently are relatives of employees. Kids think they should be doing exciting, glamorous work; have no interest in the work that needs to get done (IT: data related, picky work). Takes time to train them and then work has to be done over again anyhow because they’ve been sloppy.

    I like the idea of real internships (paid of course) for people truly interested in learning the work. Best worker I’ve hired over the years dropped out of college to play music; second and third best have PhDs.

    Recent experience, including teen lawn care, has been of kids who want the money but resent having to actually work for it and do as little as possible.

  42. Fair enough, you were making a political point and I was responding, but you don’t want debate so I’ll leave it alone. It’s your blog.

  43. This is political? From my side of the Pond it looks like a plain Good vs Evil fight.

  44. I’m a chef at resort that has several different restaurants. We actively recruit students from culinary schools to come and do internships with us. Not only do these students get credit from their schools for this, but we pay them, usually better than minimum, and provide housing while they are there. We also actively try to train them, and shift them around so they get as much experience as possible.

  45. In my field (electrical engineer) we look down on both employers who would try to get away with not paying interns and employees that would accept such an internship. Paying interns incentivizes the employer to teach then to do productive work and incentivizes the intern to work to that level. Hooray for creation of value!

    Where I work we also pay interns a pro-rated wage comparable to what a new hire would get who had achieved the degree that the intern is currently working toward. The interns I would work with directly are probably getting something in the $30/hour range. This is indicative of the level of work expected of them and I’ve never heard of an intern here that failed to meet that level.

  46. I was an unpaid intern through my alma mater’s Hollywood internship program. I was lucky and had saved the money to move to LA for six months, but other students in the program received a scholarship for their housing and transportation.

    We all got to network (I met Bruce Campbell and Werner Herzog, as well as people who actually could help my career). Some of my fellow interns were relegated to filing and coffee-fetching, but they were the ones who complained and felt entitled to instant success.

    The company hired me during a recession thanks in large part to my internship. Nine years later I’m hosting my second intern through the program. I’m really looking forward to it. Yeah, he’ll do some filing, but he’ll do some creative work too if he’s up to snuff.

  47. JH @43: Well, if they’re paid, you should be able to fire them if they don’t perform up to par, or sic them on something inconsequential (like licking envelopes) to keep them out of the way without fear of legal action.

    As a software engineer, I’m with Matthew @46 — the concept of unpaid internships is deeply foreign to me. I was always surprised at how well I was paid in my internships, but I was also always able to support myself over the summer, which was a load off my family and a good excuse to stay in the city where the good jobs were instead of returning to my parents’ and trying to find a compelling CS job in northwest Iowa. As a result, I’ve got a bunch of work experience going into a good job out of college, and I’m making good money at it. There’s no way I’d be in this position today if I’d had to take unpaid internships.

    For another take on it, some friends of mine with a startup found that bringing on a small army of (well-paid!) student interns for a month or so really helped them get their company off the ground.

    I’m glad to hear there are people who had good luck with unpaid internships — they certainly can be done in a non- (or at least less-)exploitative manner, and doing that well is a mark that the company has good people in its management structure who understand the importance of apprenticeship. The opportunity for abuse is still present, and all too easy to exploit, and paying its interns gives the company a financial incentive to treat them fairly.

  48. Kevin @48: I have boring work but nothing inconsequential to assign. And have you ever fired someone? Besides being painful for everyone involved, it’s not easy and involves EXTRA supervision and documentation.

    I am glad to read of all of you who have both contributed and received value in intern situations both paid and unpaid.

  49. I’m of two minds about this. The company I work for offers paid internships to junior and senior economics majors from local colleges. The interns have to keep a log and get credit for their work, and they are instrumental in providing quality control, numbers crunching, and preliminary work on papers and reports. They learn a lot, and many of them have been hired upon graduation, with those that aren’t directly hired gaining some very desirable experience in a competitive industry. So paying the interns is a win-win situation.

    OTOH, I’m taking courses toward an MA, and eventually will need to find an internship that I can work around my regular job. I will be expected to keep a daily log, work under the supervision of a professional in the field, and eventually produce some sort of work in my new field, like a museum exhibition or a piece of research. Unlike economics companies, museums don’t have jack to pay their interns, so if I get more than free tickets to give my friends, I’ll be shocked.

    So – it can go both ways. ’tis a puzzlement.

  50. I would argue internship for credit is a different boat, more like a practicum. It can be done in an educational fashion.

    BUT the point is extremely well taken. I run a local internship for summer experience and we do not let the faculty accept interns for unpaid positions, by and large. It actually weakens the program to do this, even though there are more projects than funded spots.

  51. Unpaid internships are totally out of control in the design world (graphic, web, motion). But then, design itself has been systematically devalued by all parties involved, including the designers themselves, so it’s no surprise.

    Getting rid of this slave labor will be good in so many ways–not just for the kids being exploited, but for the potential to break up the cronyism which issues from the internship concept (crony brought on as envelope-stuffing intern -> promotion to paid staff).

  52. As a person about to graduate from undergrad who’s done her share of unpaid (or nearly unpaid) internships for non-profits, I’m really glad to see this issue finally getting noticed. I’ve always thought of them as a trade: I will do some scut for you with a smile, and in return I’ll get some valuable experience doing more interesting things. But there are plenty of employers who don’t follow through on their end. Most adult professionals don’t care to question it since free labor from college kids has become increasingly taken for granted, and interns – who are by definition temporary workers desperate to establish their own professional credibility – have very few resources to stand up for themselves. And now that I’m looking for a real, paying job (which these internships were supposed to prepare me for), I’m finding that most of the entry-level positions are looking for “unpaid interns” instead, with no guarantees that this will ever convert to a paid position.

    The worst part of the article, though, was just dropped nonchalantly in the last two paragraphs, and it seems to have slid under the radar: “Kathyrn Edwards, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute and co-author of a new study on internships, told of a female intern who brought a sexual harassment complaint that was dismissed because the intern was not an employee. “A serious problem surrounding unpaid interns is they are often not considered employees and therefore are not protected by employment discrimination laws,” she said.”

    Let’s think about this for a minute. Not only are unpaid interns not compensated for their labor, but because they’re not compensated, they’re not entitled to any of the basic protections every other employee receives? And female unpaid interns, already isolated as the youngest, most vulnerable, and least respected people in offices with significantly older men should have no legal recourse if it turns out that their bosses are skeevy jerks? Paid or not, I sure don’t think that any guy in the office should be able to harass me with legal impunity. I mean, did I miss something, or did that case just declare open season on unpaid interns?

  53. I can’t believe anyone can defend these unpaid internships in for-profit companies. If they interns are learning something of value and receiving a leg up on their career – this benefit is only available to those who can afford to take unpaid internships. Thus, only leaving them available to the children of the wealthy. These people are essentially paying to get a job in the future. If they are just doing scut work and won’t receive any long-term benefit, is it just exploitation. These employers should have the book thrown at them. Furthermore, all they HAVE to pay is minimum wage, which isn’t all that much. The only way that I can see unpaid internships is in non-profits since it is akin to volunteering.

    I think accepting an unpaid internship at a for-profit enterprise is shameful. If no would do it; this would have never been a problem. Companies just love the race to the bottom that most Americans are willing to engage int.

  54. We have an intern program in conjunction with a local college. We’re a non-profit, so no pay, but the intern does receive credit hours and actual training. (a lot of it by me)
    No scut work, actual learning of regulatory issues, preventive maintenance, and troubleshooting and repair of medical devices. everything from IV pumps to portable X-ray devices and EKG monitor systems.

    We made sure that he got the hours per week he needed to earn his 5 credit hours but worked them around his part time job and other classes.
    (we also seemed to have quite a few potlucks and office sandwich parties during that period with extra food that he needed to take home for some reason)

    He actually came in as a volunteer after his internship to help us out and to learn more. Totally above and beyond what was expected.

    We just filled a new opening with that same intern. He’s now my newest co-worker and I couldn’t be happier. Stronger resume than almost all other applicants, could hit the ground running and had already proven himself with a track record of excellent work. What more could you ask for? And no, he’s not a relative…

    His next task, besides his regular work, is to study toward his national certification in our field. With the rest of the dept helping to coach him and what I’ve already seen, I think he’ll be ready by this fall.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is I wish we could have payed him too. I can rationalize that he did get credit toward graduation and valuable skills that translated into a job after school but I wish we could have paid him.

    In light of this information, maybe we’ll be able to re-evaluate this situation. I hope so.

  55. I’m seeing a recurring theme insisting that only kids of rich parents could possibly afford to take unpaid internships, which is a little too narrow-minded. It’s certainly possible for any student who worked through college and has paid attention to building up even a modest savings reserve to work a few months for free; the problem is mostly that a single internship doesn’t seem to be enough to get you enough experience to reach a paying job these days.

    I did just that; jumped straight out of college into an unpaid internship in New York, burning through my savings in the misguided idea that the fantastic experience I was getting by running this woman’s publishing company for her would be enough to get me a paying job at the end of it. But, I don’t know a single person in publishing who found that a single internship was enough to get even an assistant’s position in a house, even with related school courses, extra-curriculars, and part-time jobs. I wound up having to take a menial job outside my desired field not because I couldn’t afford to support myself during an internship, but because I couldn’t go on supporting myself after it failed to follow through with the ultimate point of all internships: experience sufficient to earn a paid position.

    It’s maddening; even when I compare my first internship (which was butt-loads of experience, but blatantly exploitative and outright illegal) with my second (which also provided butt-loads of experience, but was very fair and a great deal), the end result is still that nearly a year of unpaid labor is still not enough for a company to consider paying for my services.

  56. Got no problem working for no pay, as long as I get some experiance and some sort of shining recommendation of how truly awesome I am.

    I mean, I expect some compensation for my work. Intern does not =\= volunteer to me.

  57. I can’t speak to other professions, but I can say that paid social work internships were not especially plentiful even when the economy was good. I suspect that they are slim pickings indeed right now. However, as the veteran of two long-term, intensive (32 hours per week) internships, I can say that they were an invaluable part of my social work education. I think that this is due, at least in part, to the strict structure of social work internships (there is a nationally consistent format provided by the acrediting body for schools of social work), and the supervision that most schools provide to the student and the internship placement. That was probably part of the reason that my placements (and those of my friends, most of whom said that they also learned a great deal) were so succesful.

    I’m the internship coordinator for my organization now, and we try to place students in offices that have at least some vacant part-time hours whenever possible. But the structure and supervision to assure that a true learning experience occurs is still my top priority.

    In an industry where no one is looking out for the student and placement sites are looking for someone to do the dirty work and/or get coffee, I can see the potential for abuse.

  58. I agree that we should not allow people to work for free. We know better than they do what’s good for them. They are only interns after all.

  59. “I agree that we should not allow people to work for free. ”

    That’s a nice strawman you’ve got there. It would be a shame if anything refuted it.

  60. Daniel @ 60 –

    Yeah, I actually thought than was part of the experience for am intern. The internship can help them not just learn more, but appreciate the real world value and use for what they already know. The realization should come at the end that hey, you know, holy crap, I can actually do the work of a professional.

    Cordelia @ 57 –

    I second the sentiment that one doesn’t have to have a rich family to do an unpaid internship. I agree that t certainly makes it easier to figure out, but it’s a very narrow minded absolute statement.

    Mind, that’s not a comment on wheter or not one should jump willly nilly into an unpaid internship.

  61. ‘Without disagreeing with the general point of this post, I do want to point out that these tasks are exactly — and in some cases beyond — what would be expected of an editorial assistant in his or her first year on the job.’

    And luckily for HarperCollins, the first six months of training and accompanying labor are cost free. Thus demonstrating the point of how corporate America has increasingly turned to free labor as a solution to lack of adequate profitability, and a concrete example where Scalzi, as a person soon to head a writer’s association, can not merely write a few lines about how important it is for publishers, as a matter of principle, to be able to raise e-book prices, but also point out that a publisher trying to reduce labor costs through unpaid internships in its attempts to increase its earnings, a portion of which authors hope to receive, is … wait, are unpaid ‘apprenticeships’ a good or a bad thing? Or just necessary, otherwise we won’t have anything new to read? Somehow, I doubt Scalzi, representing hundreds (at a minimum, presumably) of SF authors in their professional association, is likely to do much beyond write a few words, because let’s be honest – publishing is about the money, from his understandable and oft stated perspective, almost entirely.

    But we can at least be thankful that at least Scalzi is unlikely to complain about how authors who offer their work for free on the Internet are scabs.

  62. My issue with unpaid internships is that they often aren’t considered “experience” when you apply for a “real” job.

    Years ago, I studied to be a paralegal. Graduated second in my class. Did a six-month unpaid internship with a local judge in which I did substantive work, as opposed to many of my friends in my program, who did nothing but hang around the office and go down to the courthouse to file papers once in awhile. But, when I finished the program and applied for jobs, no one would even consider my resume because that and a couple of other internships I did were unpaid.

    It kind of irritated me, considering that among the stuff I did was to create a program for getting old small-claims cases through the system, after which I tested the program in my judge’s court, wrote a handbook on the program, and then, on my judge’s instructions, went out and taught personnel in some of the other courts in the county how to implement the program. Now, tell me how that isn’t “real” work. And that was just one of several projects I completed for the judge I worked for.

  63. Also, it is common to use interns to do menial work. However, these interns are typically paid. It is not much. It is typically McDonalds wages. They shouldn’t be forced to work for free.

    From what I have seen most interns do, most internships do not really provide meaningful work experience. How much can you have someone do who will be with you fro 3 months?

    That being said, they should be paid. If it is a burden to pay an intern minimum wage, that firm should go out of business or re-think its business strategy.

  64. I guess that for the sake of clarity I should point out that not all unpaid internships are against the law. If its for a non-profit, its probably fine. If the internship is primarily for the benefit of the intern instead of for the benefit of the company, then its probably fine.

    Its just gets sticky at the point where the company is essentially replacing an employee with an unpaid intern.

    So for those who are leaping to the defense of whatever organization gave them an unpaid internship, its possible that yours was fine. Its just those of you that ended up donating slave labor because of the coercive effect of hiring requirements that force new entrants into a field to labor without pay for a while before they’re considered qualified enough to actually be paid- that was exploitative and probably illegal.

  65. Guess:

    “From what I have seen most interns do, most internships do not really provide meaningful work experience. How much can you have someone do who will be with you fro 3 months?”

    When I did my internship a the San Diego Tribune I did all sorts of writing and reporting in the three months they had me there, and learned a great amount of practical, real-world experience which in turn allowed me to pay for my senior year in college by writing freelance, and which later helped me land my first full-time newspaper gig.

    So, in fact, you can have them do a lot, and it can be very useful to them.

  66. Unpaid internships (year-round ones, not 3 month ones) used to be particularly troublesome in my profession – architecture. It’s partly because of the profession’s roots as a “gentleman’s profession” (it used to be prohibited for architects to advertise, for example) and partly because the culture of architecture does not emphasize the value associated with one’s time.

    Interestingly enough, a tangential issue is becoming prominent in “these troubled times.” The desperation to find money, any money, is driving many unemployed architects to sell their services on Craigslist for seriously less money than is the real value. It’s sad for someone to spend six years of college and end up making $5-$10 per hour. The interesting question is, will getting cut-rate services increase the exposure the general public has to design services (which might translate into a bigger market) or will it just teach the general public that design services are not valuable?

    Anyway, I’ve digressed. In a nutshell: used to be a big problem in my profession (high profile firms having well-to-do young people do free work for the honor of working there) and it was clamped down. The other issue was having interns* paid a pittance salary and then having them work 60-80 hour weeks. The big demarcation now between hourly and salaried is “does this person manage his or her own tasks/time.”

    *Educational Note: In architecture, an intern is anyone between school and licensure. This period of full time employment is generally 3 years, minimum. It really should be called apprenticeship.

  67. Anne C.

    In my limited experience, the world by and large doesn’t realize that it’s getting a corresponding lack of value with the cut rate services they employ and goods they purchase.

    People buy strawberries by the pound, and are sold gigantic, over-fertilized, over-watered monsters that taste like a strawberry diffused into a watermelon’s weight of flesh, and are cheerful about how cheap they are. What with strawberries being a luxury good that they can now afford… and can’t quite figure out why they used to be a luxury good.

    The availability of cheap versions of something seem to drive the higher quality versions underground. *snit*

  68. I have been complaining about this for a long time, but in the past ten years, the number of unpaid laborers has skyrocketed. It’s one thing to do volunteer work for a club you belong to; it’s another thing for a corporation to expect any level of work-for-free. In the 1960s and 1970s, one could find on-the-job training; now one is supposed to pay for one’s own training, and the company gets your work for free.

    Where you draw the line between volunteering and slave labor in organizations like the Red Cross is tricky, too.

  69. Roxanne@70 The thing about giving-back-to-the-community-volunteering is you don’t need to put it on your resume so when you’ve had enough (too much?) and walk away it doesn’t impact on your work history.

    Scott@69 If age equates to experience, my long experience supports your perception of devaluing. And yet the lure is strong; I had to actively remind myself to wait for the local, expensive strawberries when the giants arrived at the supermarket.

  70. Interesting experience, Elaine@64. I’m an attorney working for an appellate court judge, and we have unpaid law student interns every summer. Most of them do it for the experience and resume value — and it certainly is of resume value when they’re later applying for a clerkship or a job.

    And it truly is an internship — someone sets up various field trips and lectures for the interns as part of the learning experience. Many of their schools give them credit for it (as long as we do weekly paperwork and regular reviews of their work, which we do).

    My former boss used to say, when interviewing them, that she doesn’t actually expect them to produce anything USEFUL, and that she has interns because she feels that it’s part of her duty as a judge (to expose them to the inner workings of the court).

    I wouldn’t quite put it that way, but she has a point. Sometimes, we get terrific work out of interns. Other times, I put in more hours with them going over their work and teaching them how to improve it than it would take me to just do the damn thing myself. But I don’t do it myself — I teach them, with a smile on my face, because that’s what we’ve signed up for.

    I have absolutely no doubt that if we had to pay them, the program would stop. (Hell, I’m furloughed a day every month as it is. State has no money.) And the people that would complain wouldn’t be the judges and court employees, but the law schools and students.

  71. What business is it of the government to get between consenting adults? If someone wants to work for “free”, what business is that of anyone else?

  72. I had an unpaid internship my senior year of undergrad, it was called student teaching. I would have liked to have been paid, but I figure they were just preparing me for my future of destitution.

  73. @Bill M

    We are talking about college students. In my experience (i.e., being one,) “consenting adults” doesn’t really apply.

    In a lot of sectors, it is expected, if not flat-out required, for a student to work an internship in order to graduate and/or get a job after graduation. If those companies that are offering the internships don’t have to pay for them, they view them as free labor, and most students can’t afford that.

    Slave labor is defined as “a work force consisting of people who are forced to work against their will.”

    If you have no choice but to get an internship (in that it is a graduation requirement), and are forced to work for free (since the companies refuse to pay for the internship), it is by definition slave labor.

    And, if I may be so bold, that _IS_ the business of the government.

    As a side note, at my university we are offered but not really encouraged to do internships. Instead, more emphasis is placed on co-ops, where you spend one semester in school, one semester at work, but return to the same company each work semester. This has some neat benefits: they pay better, since you are better trained when you return, and if you do good work you typically get a job offer after you graduate.

    I didn’t avail myself of that opportunity, as I want to get undergrad out of the way asap so I can get to the grad-level stuff and join a lab.

  74. @stewart

    Your definition of a slave means anyone who doesn’t like their job is a slave which I dispute. They may be unhappy, but they are NOT slaves. It may be difficult and painful to change jobs, but it won’t involve physical violence.

    Anyone in college that is 18 or older can enter into legally binding contracts (and vote!), so you may not think of them as adults, but the law does.

    You and I are free to accept or decline a job and our decisions are based on the pros and cons of the position as we know them (you declined coop work). If you know that there are aspects of your career path that involve little or no pay and you still choose that path, it may have been a poor choice, but it was yours. You may pay a price to change your mind, but it does not involve the threat of a flogging or death.

  75. I’ll add my own experiences to the plethora of “In my industry intern=x” posts, but only to warn about a potential pitfall.

    I work for the US Congress, and unpaid internships are absolutely rampant on the hill. Every congressional office has several unpaid interns at any given time.

    Lawmakers see unpaid internships as essential, logical, and acceptable. They get wind of someone saying otherwise, and you can bet some really stupid changes to labor law will get debated on the floor of the House.

    Me, I’m with Scalzi on this one, but decisions like that are waaaaay above my pay grade.

  76. It should be noted that the government is going after unpaid internships at for-profit companies, not non-profits. Whether they are also going after the government/courts is another question.

    If a company can demonstrate value (education) gained by the intern during their stay, there is at least the possibility of justifying an unpaid internship. If it’s just scut work with no learning value, it should be paid, even if just minimum/training wage.

  77. @Bill M

    True, but people who don’t like their jobs are at least not sacrificing their livelihood. They ARE getting paid, even if they don’t like the work they are doing, and they have the option of leaving that job and moving on, so they are not forced.

    My choice to not work in a coop was exactly that- a choice. I do not need the money right now, and it is a better choice for me to focus on getting out of school.

    If someone has an option of pay, and chooses another opportunity that does not provide pay, that is their choice. On that much, we agree.

    However, if someone must work for NO pay, and often is required to pay for their own housing &c out of pocket in order to work in that internship, we are talking about a whole different can of worms.

    There are many professions that require you to take an internship if you want to get a job. It may not be written somewhere, but if you don’t intern, you’ll be flipping burgers or peddling on the street. After dropping the amount of money necessary to get through college, a student has no choice but to find some way to pay back the loans.

    In such a situation, if all the internships available to him are unpaid, that means that he is being forced to work unpaid against his will. There are no options there – you either get an internship, or you don’t get a job when you graduate, and have to figure out some other way to pay of the thousands of dollars of debt towards student loans you have accrued.

    And remember, physical violence isn’t the only factor that matters when you are considering slavery. I’d like to point you toward indentured servitude: “Modern indentured servitude takes the form of illegal immigrants paying their passage by long work-hours in harsh conditions, often at subsistence pay rates to support themselves.”

    Wikipedia is the only resource I have at hand right now, but that sure sounds like college to me. Perhaps most of the interns we are discussing are citizens, but the rest of it applies, and the additional factor of student loans still hang above their heads as an economic sword of Damocles.

  78. @stewart

    Internship can be thought of as part of your education, yes? You pay for education with time and money with the expectation that this investment will be paid back with higher income and maybe job satisfaction. If you know you’ll have to do work with little or know immediate monetary compensation, then you expect to be compensated with knowledge and experience which will be valuable later. If the numbers don’t add up, don’t choose that path. Ignorance is very expensive as those with low paying jobs and heavy student loans have found out.

    No free lunches. All careers come with hurdles, if someone doesn’t like the ones with a particular career, pick a different career.

    Indentured servitude is paying for something with your labor later in exchange for money now to get passage or out of debt or something you value more that the time you’ll put in paying off your debt. “Illegal” immigrants enter into an agreement without legal recourse and can end up paying more that they expected, but that’s due the government preventing people from entering into legally protected agreements.

  79. Not paying someone for labor they do for you is a free lunch for the person who gets the labor. They get wheat they want, and they pay nothing for it. Free lunch.

  80. @Josh Jasper

    And the person doing the job gets experience and contacts, so they are getting something, just not money.

    If the people working for “free” got nothing, why are they doing it? They do it because they expect it to benefit them some how at sometime. The expression, “Paying your dues” comes to mind.

  81. But isn’t part of the problem that the volume of scut work has grown across the spectrum of internships?

    And, don’t most internships have a selection period followed by a hard start and stop date? So, it isnt possible for the interns to select an alternate internship if they find a big pile of stable mucking as their job. As the article pointed out, one of the folks was promised ten dollars an hour and work experience and got the old switcheroo.

    But, once fall/spring/summer intern season starts, you can’t trade yourself to another team. And then you’re confronted with the decision, do i stay and at least get this place on my resume and hope I meet someone worthwhile or do I go back to Wendys?

    It’s paying your dues when you take a job and spend your hours slogging it in the boring trenches. The paying your dues part is the crap salary and the limited real/fun assignments.

    It isn’t payin your dues if you were promised one experience at a paid or even unpaid rate and show up and find out your desk is the copy room, the toner guy is your networking and there’s no opportunity to escape to because application deadlines have already passed.

    So, the company promises a payment, experience or money, traps you, and then unilaterally alters the arrangement to their sole benefit. Who would defend this companys actions?

    Or, it’s all good because after you graduate law school you know all the DA offices or high price law firms you’re going to apply to are really going to be flippin jazzed at your xerox experience, particularly your in with Karl the toner guy?

  82. Bill M – And the person doing the job gets experience and contacts, so they are getting something,

    I wasn’t talking about the intern. You said “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. There is, if you’re the employer, and can get away with not paying employees. Slaves, at least, have to be fed.

  83. I would not hire someone whose last job was as an unpaid intern, because it meant they placed no value on their time, and why should I argue with their judgment?

    It also probably meant that they were using their family background or other connections to undercut the wages of people who didn’t have the opportunity to have their parents pay for them to do months or years of unproductive work.

    However, being an evil right-winger, I don’t believe that it should be illegal to work for free (or pay to work); there is now plenty of communication available to cause reputational damage to businesses who can’t make a profit with paid employees.

  84. ‘I would not hire someone whose last job was as an unpaid intern, because it meant they placed no value on their time, and why should I argue with their judgment?’

    Fascinating judgment – and who paid you to write this incisive comment about the monetary value of time when evaluating how someone spends their time? Or to put it bit differently – anyone who has worked for free (oh, for a church, for example, or a youth league, or volunteered at a hospital/hospice) isn’t worth your money?

    Actually, they might just find you not worth their time, regardless of your money.

    And then, I actually read the rest of your comment, and seeing this, ‘being an evil right-winger,’ means it isn’t just personal speculation regarding the sort of person you consider yourself, and provides a firm foundation to judge that your evil is quite apparent to others.

  85. @not_scottbot

    “… whose last job was as an…”

    I figure that should clear things up?

  86. Considering that government is probably one of the worst offenders, I doubt they will move to regulate it.

    (Full disclosure: I have to forsake my full-time job this summer for an unpaid internship. Yeesh.)

  87. “4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the
    activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually
    be impeded;”

    I’m with you almost all the way. But this one particular criterion is just dumb-badly thought out and badly written. Let’s say you do have a company that wants to allow a paid internship, and that this really will be an internship. That is, the intern is compensated for his/her time with real, substantial training rather than with money. Sounds fine, right?

    But what does the word “immediate” mean in this context? What constitutes a benefit? Can an intern change the bottle on the water cooler? That would be a benefit. Who in their right mind is going to look at this criterion and still allow that internship? It’s so broad and easily applicable to anything from filing to contributing an idea that the organization would be better off not trying to walk through a legal mine field like this. Would it really have been so hard to write “The trainee should benefit significantly from his/her activities”?

  88. The existence of unpaid internships wouldn’t be a problem if there wasn’t such a huge power imbalance between employers and workers. But right now, people are desperate enough to get a job that employers can say “You have to work for us for free for a year, and then we might consider hiring you” and people will do it.

    I’m okay with requiring that internships show actual training value, and with putting limits on what kind of work, hours, and output you can expect from an intern before you have to pay them. That would reduce the power imbalance somewhat.

    I don’t know what to do about the fact that internships will no longer get you a job, though. When people with 20 years experience in a field can’t get hired, new workers are going to find it really hard going.

    The whole world seems to have converted into academia: years of working for free or less than minimum wage (or even paying to work) to get training and experience, then more years of low-paid, temporary positions, all in hopes that you’ll maybe get the opportunity to work on probation for seven years and maybe then get a permanent position. It’s not a good model.

  89. This kinda thing blows my mind (unpaid internships) because in the tech world (I’m a software engineer) it just doesn’t work that way. Non-broken companies tend to pay interns decent wages, often help arrange (or sometimes even pay for) affordable corporate housing, and take advantage of the opportunity to simultaneously train and evaluate a potential full-time hire.

    Interns, in addition to getting paid, receiving (hopefully) some training and/or mentorship, get a chance to see what it’s really like in the trenches, learn skills they’re not going to pick up through coursework, and evaluate a prospective employer.

    Some of the best people on the last few teams I’ve worked on have been full-time conversions after totally rocking as interns. Hell, I’ve had interns deliver major product features during their internship — which is a great way to set yourself up for a solid job once you graduate.

  90. Very interesting post. I was especially interested in Nathan’s comments on interning in the film industry. I have been interning for the last 8 months with various companies, many of them film, and have found the majority of them have taken the piss. I’ve started blogging about my experiences and would welcome anyone on this forum to see what they think…

  91. Very interesting read, and thank you to everyone for opening my mind with the very different experiences and opinions.

    I actually came into this site because I received an e-mail today from my internship ‘boss’ – a young but successful film and music industry professional. I was looking for an appropriate ‘in’ and a reason for moving to Los Angeles, and this internship promised a lot of connections and experience. I worked three jobs while in college to pay for housing and other things, and was an outstanding student so when I found out I got the internship (my second, actually), I was thrilled.

    Well, the internship is unpaid. That’s just how the industry seems to roll, but as a financially independent person I’ve managed to go quickly through my savings and now find myself in at a cross-roads. The e-mail I got today (which sparked my interest in figuring out the terms of an ‘actual’ internship) stated, in a nutshell, that I wasn’t giving it 200% and that the company has people banging down their door for my internship.

    Now, to clarify a bit, I’m not receiving credit or pay for this internship. That was my decision, and I’ve been okay with that. However, because I’m not receiving pay I had to find a job elsewhere. That is where the issue comes in, because although I’m going above and beyond what is expected of me, my ‘boss’ can’t handle the fact that if he calls me on a Saturday to come in to work I may not be able to turn away from the job that’s paying me to be there. I’ve also fulfilled the duties of an internship, in terms of time. To date I’ve done about 300 hours over three months, not including the hours I was asked to work from home for about a month before my internship officially started (including Christmas Eve). They plan on keeping me at the company for the next two and a half months.

    Another issue is that I am clearly filling the role of what is traditionally done by a paid employee. There is no one at the company who already works in the department/area in which I’m interning, so I have literally no one to learn from. The main reason I took an unpaid internship (although there were no paid internships at the time) was because I thought I would gain a lot of experience and learn a ton about the industry. There is no one in my department to teach me anything, so I am essentially doing work for which they would have to pay someone else while struggling to impress someone who has no idea what it takes to do the tasks I do.

    So, QUIT! Obviously. I plan on doing so (gracefully) tomorrow because I just can’t give away my time for free anymore, and the company has made it clear that they’re not looking to hire anyone. But the point here is that in this industry, despite what any legal documentation states, if there’s anyone else out there willing to work for free and give 200% because their parents are paying for their housing etc. then the less financially inclined workers – people like me and my friends, who have been independent since forever – are left to less conventional means of getting by. Sure, we could get into discussions about why I chose this cut-throat industry, or we could talk about the fact that I consciously chose this internship. I will get by in the end, I just think I may have wasted a lot of money and time on a bunk internship.

    I do have an extreme example, but it’s not very far-fetched from what others go through. I guess I just wanted to share my experience and shed a little light on what this particular industry demands of its future leaders.

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