What should unpaid internships really look like?

We have all heard the phrase, ‘I can’t get a job because I have no experience; I have no experience because I can’t get a job.’ The vicious loop is seemingly never ending. In today’s work culture, this issue has been increasingly prevalent because finding a steady white-collared job without any prior experience or any college degree is almost unheard of. In fact, according to the New York Times, “the percentage of Manhattan office workers with at least a bachelor’s degree rose to 77% in 2012 from 54% in 1990.” So how is it even remotely possible to build up a professional background as a student? How can we avoid such a relentless unemployment cycle? The answer is simple: internships.Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 1.21.43 pm

A universal definition for an internship is often hard to find as different companies and different fields have varying expectations for their interns. Essentially, internships are temporary job positions that put emphasis on the training rather than the actual job itself. You will find that students who participate in internships are really just trying to dip their toes into the water before making a giant leap of faith into the open waters.

“This summer I did an internship at Swiber through the recommendation of my friend Gabe,” said senior Toorjo Mishra. “It was a rare internship as we were given big responsibilities and benefits even as an intern. We were paid, got a cabin to ourselves and had flexible work hours. Our main project was the creation of a travel pillow that we gave to the 3,500 employees at Swiber. I learned a lot of simple things like how to dress to work, how to talk to your bosses, how to walk around the office, how to eat lunch with your co-workers, which will help me a lot in my future.”

Internships are extremely beneficial for future job offers. According to the NACE, in 2013, over 63% of interns got at least one job offer after their term.

But what about unpaid internships?

Internships (both paid and unpaid) may be beneficial in getting a clear look at certain occupation environments, but to what extent do unpaid internships border employment injustice? And how do unpaid internships exist in countries (for example, the United States) where minimum wage regulations are mandatory by law? For starters, unpaid internships do not have legal protection, according to theEconomist. But there are strict criteria regarding what is considered an ‘internship.’ In 2010, the US Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division came up with six conditions that firms must abide by in regards to unpaid interns.

  1. internship050_jpg_775x525_q85The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  1. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  1. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  1. 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;
  1. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  1. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

In layman’s terms, an internship must benefit the worker, not the firm. It must be nothing more than an educational environment. However, in the private sector especially, these guidelines are taken subjectively and many corporations are breaking these rules without the interns being fully aware of the conditions.

Last year, two former interns of the popular film “Black Swan” filed a lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures, demanding to be paid for the work they did on the film. They claimed that their work violated the US Department of Labor conditions [US News]. Later that year, Judge William Pauley – a United States District judge for the Southern District of New York – claimed that the firm (Fox Searchlight) infringed upon the terms for unpaid interns as well as the New York State minimum wage laws.

Clearly, there are many things to be wary of when applying for an internship. So what exactly should a legal internship look like? Employment Attorney of the Gunster Law Firm, Keith Sonderling, is quoted in the Washington Post as stating, “It’s almost like the employer is hosting a vocational training program where they are teaching interns the business while not allowing them to work on real projects, only hypothetical situations.Those tasks should not be benefiting the employer, only the intern.”

1letters_1-articleInlineAgain, the main focus is on the intern. Unpaid internships should almost be a debt to the firms; they provide resources to the intern with no additional benefits for themselves. Setting up a PowerPoint presentation for an executive as an unpaid intern? Illegal. Publishing a column in a newspaper as an unpaid intern? Illegal. In addition, because internships should be similar to that of a classroom learning environment, firms should have a highly structured program. It should resemble a job training course.

The fact of the matter is that nearly half of all internships offered in the US are unpaid and firms will continue to wrongly execute unpaid internships for as long as these “opportunities” exist. Washington Post writer Dylan Matthews writes, “Depending on how you look at it, this is either massive exploitation of young people by powerful corporations which worsens inequality, or a valuable opportunity for on-the-job training at lower cost than a degree or certificate at a college or university.”

Author: Ethan Fisher

Ethan Fisher is a senior and a new addition to the The Eye staff and the morning show; however, this is his twelfth year at SAS. Outside of the classroom walls, Ethan takes pleasure in watching new films and finding new places to eat. He can be contacted at fisher17656@sas.edu.sg.

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