HR News & Trends, Legal Issues

The Unpaid Internship Dilemma: Everyone Loses in This Crackdown

The Labor Department crackdown on interns will cause issues for managers and HR departments. (Photo by istockphoto.com)

By John Hollon

Pardon me while I shed a few tears for the end of college internships as we have known them.

The recent post here on TLNT by labor attorney Patti Weisberg of Walter & Haverfield couldn’t have been clearer: “If your company offers unpaid internships to students, take heed, (because) the U.S. Department of Labor has begun to crack down on employers that do not pay interns or do not pay them properly.”

Okay, I get that. People deserve to get paid for the work they do. However, I’m still troubled by the crackdown on unpaid internships because it threatens to kill a time-honored tradition that helped me, and many others, as we were trying to launch our careers.

You know what I’m talking about: the unpaid internship as a way to get your foot-in-the-door with a real employer that could possibly turn into a real, paid position – and maybe a career.

I know how this works all too well because it happened to me and changed the course of my life.

Back when I was a college undergraduate, I was editor of the campus daily and closing in on graduation. There was a required internship class and the Journalism Department controlled it and assigned students to various Southern California media organizations for a semester worth of work.

As one of the more prominent students in the department, I got one of the more prominent internships: a reporting position at the Los Angeles Times.

Getting a foot in the door

Every Tuesday and Thursday, I drove to downtown L.A. and sat among the Metro reporters waiting for an assignment. I got class credit instead of pay for my time, but that wasn’t the point. I could have cared less about either pay or class credit. What I really wanted was a chance – a chance to actually write something that got published in the L.A. Times.

In other words, I was looking for a way to get my foot in the door.

There was no real training involved in my internship, although I did get some tips from some of the veteran reporters who took pity on me. It turned into a semester of sitting in the newsroom, reading the newspaper from front to back, and waiting for the city editor to look up, recognize my presence, and throw a bone of an assignment my way.

What I went through hardly meets any of the criteria Patty Weisberg lists in her unpaid internship test criteria, and frankly, the L.A. Times would have killed the internship program had they been required to comply with anything like that back then.

Unpaid internship was a golden opportunity

That would have been a tragedy, because at least in my case, I eventually got an assignment, had it published in the newspaper, and then got another, and another – about a half dozen in all. It didn’t lead to a job at the L.A. Times, but the experience opened doors for me that eventually got me hired across town at the late, great, Hearst-owned Los Angeles Herald Examiner. And with that, my career was off and running.

Without that internship, I don’t know where I might be right now. I’m eternally grateful for that internship because it gave me the chance to prove myself in a professional setting. It was a golden opportunity for me, and I would have paid the L.A. Times to give me that chance.

Kris Dunn over at the HR Capitalist made this same point, and it bears repeating:

If you have unpaid interns that do work that matters (which ironically, is what is most valuable to them in the real world) and you don’t pay them, like Beavis and Butthead, you’re breaking the law.

I can’t tell you that the law makes sense, especially in an economic climate where so many are looking to change careers and would gladly take no pay for the experience they need. Wanna argue about it? Write your congress(wo)man…”

A crackdown in search of  a “problem”

Here’s what I don’t understand in all of this: why did the Labor Department decide to go after unpaid internships? Is this such a pressing problem that it deserves this kind of treatment? Are managers and HR professionals complaining that they need DOL muscle to handle this issue?

Pardon my cynical nature, but after eight years of the do-nothing Labor Department under Elaine Chao, we now have the activist, litigate, and poke-their-nose-under-every-tent DOL under Hilda Solis. Neither, I fear, does companies and HR departments much good.

And one more thing: rather than starting with unpaid internships – which feels like a crackdown in search of an alleged “problem” – why not go after some big fish, like Ariana Huffington and her unpaid army of bloggers at the Huffington Post? Or all the “content farms” that barely compensate freelance writers and pay peanuts for their efforts?

Yes, I know that it is right to pay interns – and I used to run summer internship programs where we regularly did so – but to require that “the intern should not perform ‘routine work’ of the business on a regular and recurring basis, and the business should not be dependent upon the work of the intern,” is nonsense. That’s WHY the intern wants to be there, and frankly, WHY a company or organization would consider having them there in the first place.

The death knell for college internships?

This is going to be the death knell for college internships as we knew them. You be the judge of whether that’s good or bad, but take it from me, it will certainly mean that a lot fewer students get the opportunity to get their foot in the door.

Maybe that’s okay, but had that policy been around 30 years ago, well, it would have changed my life dramatically. Is that what we really want the U.S. Department of Labor to be doing?

Yes, maybe they will help a few interns get paid, but it’s more likely that all this will do is keep a lot of young people looking for that big break from getting their foot-in-the-door like I did.

Sorry, but that somehow seems like yet another misguided piece of regulation coming out of Washington. And in the end, doesn’t everybody lose in that scenario?

John Hollon is Vice President for Editorial of TLNT.com, and the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices. Contact him at john@tlnt.com, and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/johnhollon.
  • Me

    or you can be burned by the internship offering organization such that they use talent and skills to increase profitability and cast you out with experiences that are not as valuable in the real world in other sectors….too many organizations are resorting to vollunteerism and unpaid internships as a tool to rescue their crappy operational and fiscal management in an economy that is indicative the greed that got us there in the first place…..leave volunteerism to not for profits (Candy Stripers, blood drives etc.) pay interns, even if it is minimal – it’ll boost the economy stupid…..

  • Heather R. Huhman

    John,

    I could not agree with you more. In fact, I wrote about this issue recently: http://heatherhuhman.com/2010/09/5-ways-to-tell-if-your-internship-is-legal-regardless-of-pay/.

    For me, it comes down to this: Just because your internship is paid, doesn’t make it a good program. And, just because your internship is unpaid doesn’t make it a brand-damaging blight on the company. In other words, there are some great unpaid internships out there, and some bad paid ones — and vice versa, of course.

    Instead of pay, students should be evaluating internships on the experience. Like you, I had unpaid internships that change my career and life forever — in a good way. That doesn’t mean all internships should be unpaid, by any means. If an organization can afford to both provide a great internship program and pay its interns, then it should do just that.

    But the law needs to catch up with the times — today’s business practices and today’s job market.

  • http://rehaul.com Lance Haun

    I’m conflicted about this. For one, I can see your point. Internships have more value than just getting a paycheck for the receiver.

    I had an internship that was great that paid me. And it paid me about twice the federal minimum wage at the time too because I was doing some valuable things. I know other people who have received good paid internships as well and people who have received really bad unpaid internships. I think there is a real flip side to the “unpaid internships can be great” argument.

    Here’s my take on the issue:

    1. Most employers don’t realize the true cost of the internship – Even unpaid ones are expensive for the company. The amount of training and productivity hit that an intern can take on an organization can in some cases be much greater than paying a person minimum wage. When I looked at the costs of bringing an internship program to a former company, the cost of intern pay was third or fourth on the list of expenses. It may not be insignificant in this economy to have that savings but if you’re that tight on cash, I would seriously reconsider implementing (or continuing) a decent internship program.

    2. If you need interns to fill your talent pipeline, you’ll pay – For certain industries, an internship is a necessity (for both the employer and employee). For others, it isn’t. For those that need one, they’ll pay up because keeping a farm system of young, engaged talent flowing into your organization is less expensive than buying it on the open market. If you keep the true cost of the internship in mind, it will be a small price to pay. For those companies who don’t get it, they were probably the one’s I heard about giving terrible unpaid internships.

  • http://twitter.com/ggheorghiu Gabriel Gheorghiu

    I’m happy for you and those who had the chance to start their career with an unpaid internship. But how many of those internships lead to a better job or a career? And how did you pay your bills, rent, etc while working and not being paid?

    You do get some experience, that’s for sure, but when a company asks you to work without being paid, that’s an abuse – it’s as simple as that. It’s one thing to do volunteering or help with specific tasks, but work needs to be compensated, because the company hiring you makes or saves money using you.

    In conclusion, the experience is important and if you can afford to get it without being paid, go for it. but the government should protect people who cannot afford it but will make the sacrifice hoping that they will get a real job afterwards. Like an unemployed single mother or a war veteran trying to reintegrate society – yes, there are such people, not only young ambitious people who can stay with their parents until they get enough experience to be on their own.

  • http://twitter.com/allanmbg allan m

    The death knell for college internships?

  • Jessica Sanchez

    This does seem like a waste of time dilemma being discussed in Washington. They should leave internships as they are. I haven’t been able to intern yet and would like to get the chance to. But if companies have to pay their interns, then they won’t be able to take on as many, which leaves my chances of getting the internship I want, or any internship at all, quite low. Hopefully the people in Washington realize this and throw this idea out the window.

  • http://www.facebook.com/heykatie Katie Evans

    I completely agree with this post! I recently completed an unpaid summer internship with a magazine, and while I was not paid, I learned a great deal of a lot about the industry. I also completed regular assignments to get my name out there, and the best part of all: I got to (and still get to) interview some of my favorite musicians. There are perks, definitely, when it comes to unpaid internships. If there weren’t, then no one would still partake in them, and they wouldn’t be around anymore. It only makes sense, right?

    On the note of “why bother cracking down on this”.. exactly! There are so many bigger, naughtier fish to tackle, out there. Students get college credit and valuable knowledge from internships, whereas minimally paid work for content farms out there… little pay for absolutely no knowledge AND a very small chance of actually getting your name out.

  • kasia gregorczyk

    As nice as it would be to get paid for the amount of hours you put into an internship, I think paying you for that work kind of defeats the purpose of an internship. Especially in journalism/entertainment, I feel like an unpaid internship shows your drive and willingness to get your foot in the door.

  • theoinpa

    I work in a university, and unpaid internships are a real problem for 2 reasons: WHO gets to pick the intern, and CAN they afford to work for free? Often interns are not chosen in any democratic way. Since they are unpaid, the business is really saying they want to avoid the paperwork in creating a paying job, along with the affirmative action process. Second, unpaid internships go to people who can afford not to be paid. I am fine with paying interns minimum wage, but free leaves to few controls, because most companies see unpaid interns as “under the table”, and tracking of what they’re doing and where they are is sketchy.

  • Nikki J.

    So what happens with “student teaching” aka glorified internships? These future educators spend months, working full time+ for FREE. When I was gearing up to student teach I was told it was policy I could not hold a job during that time so I could focus on my assignment. Just some thoughts to add…

  • Hugh

    Bear-baiting was a “time-honoured tradition” at one point. Not paying interns is exploitation, pure and simple, and shame on organisations that think it’s OK.

  • Jimmy

    I think there is a difference between an internship and a work placement which is required by a post-graduate program. With the work-placement, it can be seen as part of your schooling, which is why an unpaid system works. However, with an internship, it can be seen more as exploitation. The difficult part I have found for a company is when you are bringing someone on board as an intern, when there isn’t a hiring requirement. Companies are reluctant to pay in those cases.

  • Karen Kerr

    Great article, and I miss the Herald Examiner. I think we still have a copy of the final issue.