Unpaid Internships: Education or Exploitation?

Unpaid Internships: Education or Exploitation?

22 March, 2017

The hope that most wide-eyed, optimistic youth set out with after graduating, is brutally crushed when they realize that majority of the companies, non-profit and governmental agencies, eagerly opening doors for them, are in reality just looking for free labor. The glorification of compensatory offers and incentives in unpaid internships, such as the provision of institutional credit and work experience, tends to serve as a strong draw for students who, as a result, are compelled to consider abandoning their financial needs and self-worth. Some of the interns are actually required to pay for the opportunity to work which puts further pressure on the already financially burdened student.

A 2014 survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) studied the correlation between internships and full-time employment upon graduation. Surprisingly, the survey revealed that the hiring rates for those who had completed unpaid internships (37%) were almost the same as those who had not completed any at all (35%). However, students who had been fortunate enough to complete a paid internship showed higher rates of securing full-time employment (65%). Therefore, the idea that unpaid internships will provide access to jobs, given that one invests enough time and effort is largely a myth, popularized by the corporate world.

While trying to avoid legal complications, hiring companies fail to acknowledge the simple fact that “academic credit is not currency”, as Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation puts it. And that most of these students come from underprivileged and financially unstable backgrounds and can barely afford their daily expenses, let alone work over 20 hours per week with absolutely zero monetary returns. Debating the ethics of unpaid internships is a waste of time and students must get paid if “they’re doing the work”, Ross Perlin suggests.

It is interesting to note how these exploitative practices in the underlying organizational culture of hiring companies as well as in the contours of the higher education only serve as a means of reinforcing existing inequalities. Unpaid interns are essentially just a luxury for the economically fortunate who, more often than not, feed these young individuals with false hope and promises of permanent future job positions while rarely ever following through.

While emphasizing the importance of paid internships, Mike Harden CEO of Clarity Group stated that “if I ask someone to do work for me, I pay them. Now — I may not pay them a lot, but compensation is important”. A lot of backlash, in the form of lawsuits filed by disgruntled interns, has been faced by hiring companies in the past, which has eventually led the U.S Department of Labor to lay down a strict criterion (under FLSA) that can be used by the private-sector companies to determine whether an intern should be paid or not. The criterion stipulates that the form of unpaid work allotted to an intern must be educational and supervised by the employer who must not receive any direct advantage from it. Ross Perlin views this rising awareness as “the beginning of the end” of unpaid internships.

Robert Shindel, vice-president at the research firm Intern Bridge, suggests that instead of establishing criterions, the viable solution would be to make it mandatory for all employers to pay their interns the minimum wage. He believes that this should be a “part of our moral fabric of who we are as a society [where] you do work and with that work you get paid a minimum wage”. Other individuals like John Balitis, an Arizona-based attorney at Fennemore Craig, believe that if Congress would take the initiative of solving the uncertainty about unpaid internships, the controversy might be resolved once and for all.

Lawyer Tricia Meyer of Meyer Law Ltd. explains how it is often impossible for companies to remain in compliance with the law while hiring unpaid interns. She suggests that most startups are typically low on funds and therefore choose to hold back when it comes to the wages of interns. However, she makes the strong argument of how internships do not equal free labor. “More often than not, interns actually do need to be paid”, she says.

Meanwhile, Daniel O’Meara, chairman of Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads, has simply one advice for startups and hiring companies planning on hiring interns: “Using unpaid interns is asking for trouble.” It is essential for hiring companies to understand the fact that majority of these students are highly talented and capable individuals who are, more often than not, financially burdened and desperately looking for an entry into the workforce. Companies need to ask themselves whether they really should be incentivizing success in the incoming workforce with bad karma.





Paid Internships Lead to Better Job Prospects and Higher Starting Salaries, Says Research


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