April 9th, 2010 - 66 Comments
“With job openings scarce for young people, the number of unpaid internships has climbed in recent years, leading federal and state regulators to worry that more employers are illegally using such internships for free labor,” The New York Times reports. “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.”
According to Smeal’s Robin Stevens, director of Career and Corporate Connections, unpaid internships are a common occurrence for many of today’s college students. While she is concerned that a handful of companies may be taking advantage of this free labor, she is afraid that a government crackdown might limit opportunities for some students.
More from Stevens:
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Unpaid internships are, for better or worse, a fact of life for many students today. In addition to the nonprofit sector, we see them more often in two areas: highly competitive fields like the entertainment and sports industries and at smaller local firms and brokerages.
For students who want to break into these competitive fields—like sports marketing, for example—an unpaid internship is often the only option because there are so many more candidates than there are opportunities. Even entry-level jobs in fields like these require long hours at a low wage. However, our students who complete internships in these fields find them very rewarding because of the exposure they get to the industry, the events they may be able to attend, and the people they meet. Unfortunately, though, unpaid internships often preclude students whose families can’t afford to support them while they work for nothing in expensive locales like Manhattan or Los Angeles.
We also see a lot of students, particularly first-year and sophomore students, accepting unpaid summer internships at smaller, local brokerages in their hometowns. These are often the only options available for younger students who are overlooked by larger firms but who want to get some experience in the field. These opportunities also allow students to keep expenses down by living at home while they intern. A crackdown on unpaid internships could cause many of these opportunities to vanish.
To me, the bigger issue with those internships is that the experience itself is too often lacking. The point of an internship is to get exposure and experience in a chosen field in return for working for free or a low wage. Unfortunately, some organizations view interns as nothing more than free or cheap labor, delegating tasks to them that no one else at the company wants, or has the time, to do. It’s not the norm—all of the companies that we work with regularly have respectable internship programs that greatly benefit our students—however, there are a handful of organizations that use students as free labor.