Exposing exploitation: Making the case against unpaid internships

By Andrew Boschert / For The Pitt News

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College students are aware that between all their classes and exams, they will be expected to work somewhere for free. Not volunteering, I might add, but the bottom of the barrel: unpaid intern.

Gone are the days of making copies and coffee runs. Interns often have practical skills and technological know-how sought by employers. Somehow, under the guise of “hands-on education” and “establishing contacts,” a huge unregulated labor market has taken hold.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), employers have said their No. 1 resume requirement is internships, so it’s likely that paid and unpaid internships are here to stay. But what has become unfortunately commonplace may have unintended consequences.

Evidence suggests that unpaid internships are largely unregulated and often don’t lead to paid work. NACE released a study in 2013 that examined the employment prospects of college seniors who completed internship work. The report indicated that only63 percent of paid interns were afforded at least one job offer. Although this is more than a majority, it is still not an optimal rate for job opportunities.

Unpaid interns fared far worse. Only 37 percent of unpaid senior interns were offered at least one position, compared to 35 percent who had no internship experience at all. And the huge gap in employment from internships is the least of unpaid interns’ worries.  

An appalling feature of unpaid internships is that, since they are not considered employees, they are not protected from discriminations like sexual harassment. The government does not consider unpaid workers to be legally protected by those rights under the Department of Labor’s current standards. The lethargic response of the U.S. government to the need to protect and regulate highly vulnerable workers is embarrassing. The federal government’s role should be to protect, not exploit, its citzens and their right to work. 

Perhaps this can be partly attributed to the DOL’s lax attitudes toward unpaid internships. One of the six stipulations the Department sets for unpaid internships is that the intern is not required to be offered a job. While it seems to be a reasonable “quality control” measure, let’s examine some of the other laws affecting these interns.

The DOL requires that employers not gain any “immediate advantage” by the efforts of any unpaid interns becaus. In fact, the learning experience can even hinder business productivity. In other words, businesses are not required by U.S. standards to use unpaid interns to increase productivity, because  they are simply there to learn. This rule is extremely nonspecific, and also virtually unenforceable.

It should be highly suspicious that we expect businesses to take on our students for negative to no gain. 

The unenforceable nature of these stipulations has led to startling information about the current realities for interns. Conservative pundit John Stossel has remarked on the practice of capitalizing upon uncompensated college students.

“I’ve employed interns my whole career, gotten lots of ‘immediate advantage’ out of them,” Stossel is quoted saying in Ross Perlin’s 2011 book, “Intern Nation”. “They’ve done most of the research for my books and most of the research that won me Emmy Awards for consumer reporting.”

The delicious irony of this statement is that Stossel is a man whose career is rife with objections to “handouts” and generational entitlements. Expecting free labor from the younger generation surely counts as entitled behavior.

If the current trend of unpaid internships continues, younger generations are bound to feel the squeeze. Desperation for work leads to unpaid positions, and even a modest amount of “immediate advantage” lessens an employer’s desire to hire paid workers.

The real immediate advantage lies within the generational gap in internships. The established baby boomers gain the advantage of additional security in an unstable job market, since they are usually the ones with the most previous experience. It seems then unfair to use unpaid interns to devalue labor even more.

Last year, I attended an internship panel hosted at Pitt. While it was mostly helpful, there was something unusual said that stuck with me.

When asked what is the No. 1 thing employers look for on resumes for internships, the unanimous response was, “The best way to get an internship is to have already had an internship.”

Two things struck me about this. First, it’s not uncommon for students to take multiple internships throughout their time in school to pad their resumes. Second, the true advice was, iff you haven’t had an internship, it helps to be really persistent.

On a basic level, it feels wrong to have to engage in such hoop-jumping to obtain, at best, temporary paid work. As employers have said, internships are necessary for a “real job” but this necessity is, at least in my experience, ignored in job interviews themselves. Even though internships technically provide job experience, they do not carry the weight of an actual, full-time position. Furthermore, having to cycle through a competitive hiring process multiple times while trying to obtain an education seems extreme. 

This exploitative nature of unpaid internships make them seem like an anachronism. It would be best for the DOL to abolish them altogether, or, at the very least, regulate them.. If possible, the most effective way for students to combat unpaid internships is to avoid them. Holding out for that paid position sends a message that your skills are valuable and that unpaid work doesn’t interest you. This can only happen if it is a collective effort. Otherwise, with college admissions soaring every year, unpaid internships will not be going anywhere any time soon. 

Write to Andrew at amb306@pitt.edu

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