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)

Editor’s Note: Sometimes, readers ask about past TLNT articles they may have missed. That’s why on Fridays we republish a Classic TLNT post some of you have asked about.

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.

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:

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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 Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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