My op-ed that the Great Falls (Montana) Tribune ran on Feb. 27, 2014.
With the job market still tight, unpaid internships are as close as many aspiring professionals can get to a job in their field. These internships are supposed to be about businesses investing in their future workforces and interns gaining experience and training valuable enough to offset their unpaid hours. So, what’s wrong with having the option to get ahead in competitive industries?
The problem arises when the system closes out people who cannot afford to work for free. This is especially egregious because internships are not just extra flair on a resume anymore. Internships are required to get even an entry-level job in many fields, and to graduate from some university programs. My bachelor’s degree in journalism required a one-credit internship, and I paid my university several hundred dollars to earn the credit for my free labor.
The average U.S. student has $29,000 in student-loan debt at the end of a bachelor’s degree. Students pay extravagantly for their education — much more so now than in decades past, even accounting for inflation — then are obliged to do unpaid work before being rewarded with a degree or job.
Students can’t afford to work for free any more than anyone else can, especially if they’re not getting some sort of educational or experiential benefit out of the process. (Bear in mind many undergraduates, people switching careers, and other interns have families to support or other responsibilities and debts.)
Federal law is clear on when it’s OK not to pay interns or trainees. The Fair Labor Standards Act establishes six criteria companies must meet to justify not paying interns. The key elements are the internship must provide the equivalent of vocational training, and the company cannot directly benefit from unpaid interns or use their efforts to replace paid employees.
In 2013, several groups of unpaid interns sued the corporations they worked for, including Condé Nast, Hearst, PBS, Atlantic Records, and Elite Model Management. The plaintiffs allege their internships didn’t have enough, or any, educational value to justify not getting paid for their work. More suits are in progress in the sports, fashion, media, and healthcare industries.
The decision that led to the deluge of lawsuits came last June, when two former Fox Searchlight interns won their lawsuit over unpaid internships in which they were assigned menial tasks, such as fetching coffee, on the set of the 2010 film “Black Swan.” They may have been getting their feet in the door at Fox, but they weren’t getting an education; they were simply doing work that needed to be done.
The message from the federal court was clear: Programs that don’t teach must pay. As a reporting intern at a midsize, daily newspaper in California last year, I didn’t get paid but I did get a lot of experience and a better idea of what kind of career I want. I could afford to be philosophical about the process because I was lucky enough to have a full-ride college scholarship, which helped me absorb the cost of moving from my native Montana to California for a summer of what was essentially volunteer work.
Too many students don’t have that option, which means only the relatively wealthy can afford the experiences needed to land decent jobs. This system entrenches economic inequality, making the dream of bettering one’s station in life increasingly limited to those who don’t start out poor.
It also means companies that don’t pay interns don’t necessarily get the best applicants — merely the best middle-class-and-above applicants — and they expose themselves to costly litigation.
While it’s true that fewer internships may be offered if all companies have to comply with the law and pay their interns, at least then the opportunities would go to the most qualified students who are ready to contribute to a professional workplace. This would also relieve employers of the frustration of dealing with students who are not prepared for professional work, but are forced into internships as a graduation requirement. (Former bosses as well as former professors have told me this is not an uncommon problem.)
The cost of higher education in the U.S. borders on injustice. Colleges and universities make matters worse by offering their students as free labor, driving many students deeper into debt, by requiring internships and making students pay for the credits they earn working these unpaid gigs.
Popular culture tells us not getting paid for labor is an inevitable part of young professional life, and people should just tough it out. But no one benefits when career advancement is limited to wealthier applicants, least of all companies that potentially miss out on discovering some of the greatest talents simply because those people might not be able to afford living and being interns at the same time.
Interns and employers alike deserve a fairer system that promotes learning and rewards merit, not economic class.