TODAY'S QUESTION: Do you think it's fair for employers to offer unpaid internships?

Monday, May 17, 2010 | 3:25 p.m. CDT

Internships offer the opportunity for young adults, college students especially, to gain valuable work experience in hopes of getting a job after graduation. But because jobs are scarce in many markets, the number of unpaid internships has increased.  

According to a New York Times article, federal and state regulators are worried that more employers are illegally using unpaid internships for free labor. Officials in Oregon, California and other states have begun investigations and fined employers.

The U.S. Department of Labor has six criteria for employers that must be met for an unpaid internship to remain legal:

  • The training must be similar to that offered in a vocational school.
  • The training is for the benefit of the employee.
  • The intern does not displace regular employees and works under close observation.
  • The employer derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, and, in some cases, their operation might actually be impeded.
  • The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the end of the internship.
  • The employer and the intern understand that the intern isn’t entitled to wages for their time spent in training.

Besides work experience, an internship can boost resumes, provide interaction with long-time employees and create the possibility of a job down the line.

Do you think it’s fair for employers to offer unpaid internships? Should there be stricter regulations on what is considered legal?

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Gregg Bush May 18, 2010 | 7:52 a.m.

Any laboring that society deems useful enough to engage an individual 40 hours a week should provide a living wage especially if that laboring creates wealth. A living wage is an amount that provides food, shelter, water and electricity. Food to fuel the body; shelter to keep dry; water to clean the body so you don't show up to work smelling bad; electricity so you can set an alarm clock and show up to work on time.
Anything less than that is exploitation.

(Report Comment)
Ro Sila May 18, 2010 | 9:31 a.m.

I will make the assumption that we are discussing summer internships. As an employer, I need to tell you that you won't be here long enough to earn your keep. I am training you in real-world work skills. I am not getting the time of an employee I am paying because that person is training you instead of doing my work. By the time you've learned enough to be useful, it's back to school for you. BUT, I am giving you training and (if you work at your job) a real-world reference.
I do think you should at least be reimbursed for your travel expenses (within reason) to and from your abode to my place of business. Beyond that, the benefit is pretty much all to you, though I do get new viewpoints and, with luck, some new ideas. If you want the advantages I'm offering you, come work for me. If you don't agree with my viewpoint, go somewhere else. Your choice. By all means, work at the pizza shop if you just want money.
(I am assuming that employers are professional about internships and not just treating you as a go-fer. I'm aware that is not always the case.)

(Report Comment)
John Schultz May 18, 2010 | 11:40 a.m.

Gregg, how is it exploitation if the employee willingly comes to the job place each morning for the agreed-upon wage?

(Report Comment)
Gregg Bush May 18, 2010 | 2:26 p.m.

John, you ask a reasonable question so I'll give you a reasonable answer.
The relationship between the employer and employee is inherently unequal. Inequality is not exploitation. Inequality can lead to exploitation. This why we need robust labor and occupational safety law enforcement. It's part of our dynamic marketplace.
I'm not interested in convincing or debating, just giving voice to an opinion.

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