OPINION: Unpaid internships should be illegal

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Back when I was looking for an internship, paid ones seemed sparse. They were an elusive thing that most students, including myself, talked about with a sort of reverence, but knew deep down that landing one was not likely. And let me tell you, that was not a great feeling.

That feeling of wondering whether or not you might be one of the few lucky ones to get a paid internship is something no person should experience. Internships — all of them — should be paid.

I was one of the lucky ones. I worked a paid internship last summer, and it was an incredible experience, an experience I wish every student could have. I learned so much over the course of the summer and discovered exactly what I wanted to do with my life, all in one internship. I sincerely believe, however, that would not have been the case had it not been paid.

The idea behind an internship is that it benefits the student by providing knowledge and know-how for the real world. It is supposed to be a learning opportunity in which the intern gains valuable experience that can be slapped on a resume to make them more hirable.

According to “Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs under the Fair Labor Standards Act,” provided by the U.S. Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division, in order for an unpaid internship to be legal, there are specific labor laws that must be followed:

  • “The 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.
  • “The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.
  • “The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.
  • “The employer who provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.
  • “The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.
  • “The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.”

According to the fact sheet, if all six of the requirements are met, then an employer is not legally required to pay an intern for his or her time. The idea is that the internship benefits the student more than the company and is a learning opportunity in which the environment is one of training for the student.

I have a hard time believing that this hands-off environment is really the best way for an intern to learn. How much are students actually learning through an internship that legally requires them to be more of an observer than a participant?

Students who work paid internships have more job opportunities in the future than those who work unpaid internships, so this leg up is the downfall to unpaid internships.

Sixty-three percent of paid interns were offered at least one job after graduation, whereas only 41 percent of unpaid interns were offered one or more jobs, according to “The Class of 2012 Student Survey Report” from the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

The biggest argument I have heard against the dismissal of unpaid internships is the depletion of available internships all around.

Admittedly, this does make sense. Not every company or organization may be able to afford to pay for an intern, especially smaller businesses or nonprofits; however, I believe internships are mutually beneficial for the business and the intern.

While there would probably be some drop off, I think most businesses and organizations would be willing to pay their interns instead of lose them completely. If an internship is paid, the company would also benefit in the fact that students are legally able to do more actual work, therefore increasing their value to the company.

“It’s true that an internship is an essential resume line. But that’s the case only because the alternative is an empty resume line. You know what else would look good on that resume? A summer job in one’s field. But employers would have to be foolish to pay applicants whose services they could get free,” Raphael Pope-Sussman said in The New York Times article “Unpaid internships should be illegal.”

Students are taken advantage of in unpaid internships. They work for experience and nothing else. It was stressful for me, wondering how I was going to make ends meet if I did not find a paid internship. The bottom line is: Labor is labor, and it should be compensated fairly.

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