Time for Illegal Internships to Come out of the Shadows

It's been over a decade since summer internships became a requisite for the ambitious student's resume, yet they still exist in a shadow space outside of existing legal, economic, and educational categories.
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"Opportunity to create a commercial webisode series for New York City's most renowned Sports store."
"[Assist] a Brooklyn-based visual artist/art director/blogger/tastemaker with several upcoming projects."
"MODELING AGENCY --You will be required to do hands on work with assisting models and staff with the company."
"Exciting lingerie company...responsibilities include: preparing packages, swatching, various paperwork, organizing design room & samples."

What do these New York City jobs found recently on Craigslist have in common? All are for unpaid summer internships. And all are quite probably illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

It's been over a decade since summer internships became a requisite for the ambitious student's resume, yet they still exist in a shadow space outside of existing legal, economic, and educational categories. Recently, several states and the federal Department of Labor have been investigating their legality. In cases such as the listings above, where people are being asked to do real work contributing to a commercial enterprise, officials are finding that minimum wage laws clearly ought to apply. And the Economic Policy Institute released a report last month arguing that unpaid internships may supplant waged jobs, that they create an unequal playing field by favoring students who can afford to work for free, and that they leave interns legally unprotected from discrimination and harassment.

On the other hand, conservatives and business leaders have argued that internships are mutually beneficial, and that young people have a right to donate their services in a free market. And legions of college students have no doubt made up their minds that, exploited or not, they have no choice but to seize internship opportunities if they hope to ever get good jobs.

Both sides have good points. They're just arguing past each other. Internships are an informal, ad hoc practice that has arisen in a fast-changing economy to fill a real educational need: the gap between what typical liberal arts programs provide in terms of job preparation and what employers are actually looking for. For any ambitious young person today, they are a critical part of personal development and preparation for careers. Internships are not going away any time soon.

What's needed now is to bring them from the shadow into the light. It's time for employers, in cooperation with the government and colleges, to step up and create higher-quality apprenticeships, paid jobs, and co-op programs to replace the ill-defined, unpaid internship.

One way to bring internships into the light is to coordinate them more closely with degree programs. This requires entrepreneurship and creativity on the part of colleges. For example, in the AI Practicum course at the Armstrong Institute for Interactive Media Studies at Miami University of Ohio, multidisciplinary teams of undergraduates work on a "live" interaction design project. Clients, who have included Procter & Gamble, Target, and Bank of America, pay the program for the students' work. Similarly, at Seneca College in Toronto, there's a course where students fix real bugs in Firefox, the open-source browser. When professors are actually supervising and evaluating students doing real-world work, they can ensure that educational goals are being met alongside vocational ones.

A second solution is to tap philanthropic or federal funds to pay interns in the name of expanding opportunity. Public Allies, an Americorps program currently growing nationwide, recruits diverse youth to serve four days a week at nonprofits in their own communities, while participating in one day a week of leadership training. Public Allies' leaders earn monthly stipends of $1,300 to $1,800 and more than 80 percent end up employed in public service. The authors of the EPI study about the dangers of unpaid internships, Kathryn Anne Edwards and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, have proposed expanding the federal work-study program to provide low-income students compensation for interning.

The most difficult option politically, especially in this economic climate, is to push more private companies to obey the law, step up, and pay their interns minimum wage. There's some evidence that paid internships tend to be more valuable experiences for both the employer and the intern, perhaps since the company has some skin in the game. But the core issue is a legal and, indeed, a moral one. Maybe the college intern community just needs its own Lilly Ledbetter: one student willing to risk burning bridges by saying she will no longer fetch coffee and file for free.

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