In certain fields, internships allow younger people in the formative stages of their careers get experience with major companies, make connections with influential people in later stages of their careers, figure out if their career goals are worth the effort, and possibly put themselves in a position to be hired full-time for the company that offers the internship.
For companies, internships are nothing more than a way to receive cheap labor. Corporations can churn through hundreds of eager, doe-eyed interns a year, offering none of the promised benefits, except perhaps college credit.
Your internship may in fact be illegal, according to the Department of Labor. An internship is still a job — you are working, offering time and effort, usually at high capacity even if the skills you may need aren’t necessarily technical at this stage. And because you are working, you should be paid a market wage, though there is some concession that if you’re receiving the benefits described above, society is willing to accept lower wages.
I studied music education in college — far enough away from what I do for a living now — but one of the things I did in my role as education officer for a national service organization was arrange for one of the professors to speak about practical issues musicians face when entering the work force.
One of his points was never to perform for free. There will be a lot of pressure for musicians to build a reputation for themselves as performers, and others will offer performance opportunities in return for “exposure” or as an “audition for a full-time gig.” Accepting these types of opportunities reduces the value of live musical performance in the economy. Why pay an experienced, professional musician, when an eager graduate will provide a similar service for free?
This corresponds to labor forces in the world of non-musicians, and the Department of Labor, as a result of the Fair Labor Standards Act, has certain regulations that are supposed to prevent for-profit employers from taking advantage of desperate individuals eager for any chance to prove their worth to any company that will pretend to pay attention.
If you have accepted an unpaid internship, these are the six criteria, all of which must be met, in order for your employer to be following the law:
- 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 that 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; and
- The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
I find the fourth criterion most interesting. In a for-profit company I’ve worked for in the financial sector, my department hired summer interns during my last year at the company. Interns were clearly present to assist the department with administrative needs. Does that provide an immediate advantage to the company? I think it does, because it allows other employees to focus on higher-level tasks.
In this case, the internships did not displace existing employees, but a hired administrative assistant — or even a temporary worker — would have been able to provide the same type of labor, both at market wages.
How the company I worked for was able to avoid any problem was by paying the interns some kind of minimal stipend. I don’t know how much it was, but it wouldn’t have been a minimum or living wage. Offering any sort of compensation negates the need for the position to meet all six criteria, even if the compensation is a token payment. In fact, some companies will pay their interns a token amount simply to avoid the regulation.
That’s a great deal for the employer, and not a good deal for the employee who loses protection under this particular law without still needing other work to supplement the internship. This other work might constitute another full-time job just to cover all basic living expenses, and the result is a generation of young individuals working eighty hours a week — or more, because interns are often pressured to prove their worth by exceeding expectations of time and effort — if they want a full-time salary.
Unpaid internships rarely offer the benefits promised. The best internships, those that actually introduce young workers to people who can guide them in the right direction, are often paid internships. The companies that offer them want to attract the best interns, and the best way to do that is to offer compensation. As more aspiring employees choose paid internships in every field, the less society will accept unpaid internships.
Every worker should be paid fairly for the work they do, and the more companies successfully take advantage of those most desperate for work in the early stages of their careers, the less power all workers will have in negotiations. The important point for me is not giving employees more power than employers, just striking some kind of balance so that, among other things, young workers are not led to believe that working for free is a good way to build a career.
What I would like to see, though, is all unpaid internships in the for-profit sector being illegal. There is no reason people should be expected to work without real compensation that one can use to pay real living expenses. The laws of supply and demand won’t necessarily agree with that approach until everyone demands fair compensation; until then, regulation would be necessary.
Did you start your career with an internship, whether paid or unpaid? Did you receive the expected benefits, and was it worthwhile?
Updated August 22, 2013 and originally published August 19, 2013.