No more unpaid internships

By Leeds Brown Law | January 23, 2015

by Dillon Patel at The Chronicle(Duke)

Barcelona, please take me back. Real life isn't nearly as exciting. I've been back at Duke for less than a month and I've hit a wall of reality, especially when it comes to finding an internship for next summer. I'm looking mostly in sectors such as consulting and finance. Super original, right?

Anyways, I've worn a suit more times in the last month than probably my entire life, and have been practiced the art of "selling myself,"-and no, not like the women of Amsterdam's redlight district, probably closer to our freshmen friends in button-downs and Sperry's. During my interviews, I discuss prior experiences at other companies and previous internships, all of which have been unpaid up. This process has forced me to reflect on just how ridiculous the almost "necessity" of having unpaid internships have become when applying to paid positions, and really just how ridiculous the concept of unpaid internships is all together.

This an issue that has increasingly hit mainstream media. Just a few weeks ago, Viacom, the media giant behind popular networks such as MTV and BET, settled a class action lawsuit with hundreds of former unpaid interns, who sued the company for using them as substitutes for paid labour. While these lawsuits have become increasingly visible in the entertainment and media sector, they exist across every industry. The National Association of Colleges and Employers reported that almost half of internships taken by the class of 2013 were unpaid opportunities.

Universities need to be proactive in screening these opportunities that unfairly take advantage of a young and driven labour force. Some have begun to take steps, such as NYU, which mandates employers to indicate that they comply with the Labour Department guidelines. Others like Columbia and Duke, simply don't allow unpaid internships to count for credit towards graduation.

Employers have often used class credit as unfair justification for not proper valuing the value-added by student work, using it as a way around minimum wage laws. Some firms have gone so far as adopting an unofficial policy of replacing paid workers with unpaid interns. A few years ago, I began working as an unpaid marketing intern for a local company. During my first week on the job, I watched the marketing employee who sat across from my new cubicle get fired. Ironically, this was the man who interviewed me for the job. While his firing might not have directly been related to my hiring, I think the fact that the company never hired anyone to replace him had a lot to do with the fact that I was around.

This broken system only further privileges wealthy students, who often have much more flexibility in their summer plans. Some students simply don't have the luxury of taking unpaid internships, especially when financial aid packages expect students to earn a certain amount of money each summer. Others simply need to make money over the summer to support themselves during the year.

Ironically, one of the largest pools of unpaid labour forces takes root every year in our nation's capital, specifically in the halls of Congress. These bright, intelligent students spend three months learning the art of email writing, answering the phone and making coffee that has just the right amount of cream. Government jobs often slide under the radar as they are aren't held to same standards as private companies.

The Labour Department, which is generally responsible for investigating the legitimacy of unpaid internships, has been plagued with numerous instances of spotty oversight and unclear guidelines. According to their website, there are several stipulations that employers must follow in order to classify a position as unpaid. To start off, an internship should include training elements that are similar to an education environment and the experience should be geared towards the benefit of the intern. Moreover, an internship position shouldn't replace regular employees and there should be a mutual understanding that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time being. Finally, the employer should not receive immediate advantage from the intern.

This system was flawed from the start. With no "immediate advantage," most employers, minus those interested is solely garnering future interest in their company, would abolish their internship programs all together. Another major issue is that the U.S. Department of Labour often waits for former interns to file complaints before taking actions against companies. In order for this to happen, two critical things need to be true. First, the intern needs to understand the illegality of their employer's policies. Second, the intern must be willing to file the complaint, which is incredibly unlikely when they are often seeking eventual full-time employment opportunities at the firm.

While I understand there are some exceptions, such as non-profit work, the vast majority of unpaid internships aren't just blatant violations of the law, but they also heavily privilege wealthy students. So what I'm really getting at here is, will someone just hire me already? I'm ready to get paid.

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