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Mar 9, 2012

This week, a story in USA Today reconfirmed what a lot of us already know: unpaid internships, at least as we once knew them, are slowly going away.

And as much as I believe that it is always good to pay people for their work, whether they are students, old-timers, or workers in the middle, the Labor Department-led attack on unpaid internships is both shortsighted and misguided. It will ultimately limit opportunities for many young people who wouldn’t be able to get such experience any other way.

As USA Today notes:

As summer intern season draws near, many employers are doing away with unpaid internships or converting them to paid programs amid lawsuits that claim interns should have been compensated for their work, labor lawyers say.

They’re saying, ‘We’re not going to run the risk,’ ” says Al Robinson, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and former acting administrator of the Labor Department’s wage and hour unit.

Unpaid internships are legal only if they meet stringent Labor criteria. For example, programs must provide training and benefit interns, not employers. Some firms are modifying programs by rotating interns among several departments, says lawyer Brian Dixon of Littler Mendelson …

But Michael Aitken of the Society for Human Resource Management says an overreaction by employers could doom legitimate internships. “That’s a lost opportunity for students,” he says.”

Yes, a lost opportunity for students

SHRM’s Mike Aitken is right; this is a huge overreaction that IS a lost opportunity for many students, and had this Labor Department jihad against internships been going on when I was a college undergraduate, the course of my life and career might have gone a lot differently — and not for the good.

As I wrote about this back in the Fall of 2010 when this attack on internships started:

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. …

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.”

Who wants the Labor Dept. nosing into this?

My big question then, as now, is this: what big problem are we solving here, and who really is demanding that we get rid of unpaid internships, anyway? Who really wants the U.S. Department of Labor to get involved in this?

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. …

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.

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?”

Of course, there’s more than the demise of unpaid internships in the news this week. Here are some HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Paternity leave for Dads – is it career enhancing? The growth of paternity leave for fathers is generally viewed as a good thing, but what if it is really just another way to get ahead on the job? That’s the question from The Wall Street Journal’s The Juggle blog. It points to a study that says that, “The study found that female professors who take paid maternity leave spent most of their time off to focus on infant care, including breastfeeding. Male professors, on the other hand, used their paid paternity leaves to focus on things other than infant care, such as research and publishing papers.”
  • How co-workers can impact your work-life balance. The behavior of your co-workers can have a big impact on you and your attempt to have a balanced lifestyle, says Miami Herald workplace columnist Cindy Krischer Goodman. “Part of doing our job is adapting to the office culture, and sometimes that office culture defined by our co-workers is not really conducive to work life balance,” she writes. “Now, I’m not ruling out changing the office culture. Cranking through the lunch hour turns out to be bad for productivity in the long run. A new study shows employees who exercised more during work hours increased their work productivity by improving concentration and problem solving ability and required fewer sick days. So you COULD print the study, put it on your co-workers desk and suggest taking short group walks at lunch time.”
  • Taking “Casual Friday’s” too far. When does letting employees dress “casually” go too far? According to a helpful-but-basic story in the Arizona Republic, “Employees need to be aware that office-casual attire typically isn’t the same as the casual clothing they wear when off the clock, career experts say. … It’s key for employees to remember that how they dress often translates into how they are viewed at the company.”
  • “Talentism is the new capitalism.” This animated video highlights a Mercer/World Economic Forum research study about global talent practices that drive economic growth. It’s worth a look.

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