The number of unpaid internships in the U.S. has grown rapidly in recent years, according to the New York Times. College students see them as opportunities for valuable work experience, but some businesses view them as something different.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 83 percent of graduating students in 2008 had held internships – an increase from just 9 percent in 1992. One-fourth to one-half of all internships are unpaid, though no one keeps track of the total number, according to the Times.
Several states are investigating companies that may be using interns as free labor to cope with economic hardships. Even the U.S. Department of Labor (UDL) is looking at firms that may not be paying interns properly.
“If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,” Nancy J. Leppink, acting director of the UDL’s Wage and Hour Division, said to the Times.
Employers should not be exploiting their interns, but part of the problems lies with the federal regulations governing unpaid internships.
For an internship to be unpaid, it must meet six outdated federal criteria based on a 1947 Supreme Court decision. The training and education must be similar to what would be found in an academic setting and interns cannot displace work from other employees.
Perhaps the toughest requirement to meet is that the employer cannot derive any immediate advantage from the intern’s activities. If employers were strictly held to that regulation, there would be little work for interns to do.
For example, an unpaid intern at a newspaper or TV station could not produce or help produce any content that would make it in the paper or on the air. This limits the actual work experience students can earn and will make employers less likely to offer internships if they have to pay.
Student interns should be able to do some work, but limits should be placed on employers. Some students were forced to do clerical work or clean bathrooms, according to the Times.
Unpaid internships are already hard enough for some students who must give up a paycheck in exchange for a better chance at a paid position. Because most employers insist that interns get college credit, students are often forced to pay tuition and fees for their work, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Internships are a valuable resume builder for students, and many interns are afraid to complain about abuse for fear of damaging their careers. It is up to the states and the federal government to police employers, but the rules governing unpaid internships also need to be updated.