The Growing Culture of Unpaid Internships

Intern Nation author Ross Perlin says free labor is problematic for society.

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[See Why New Graduates Should Consider Entrepreneurship.]

If this problem is so systematic, how do you propose we fix it?

[We need to] change this culture of being unpaid and the expectation that you need to work unpaid to break in.

For parents, I say, take a more critical look at internships. Help protect your child from going into one of these, for instance, home-office internships that are often particularly exploitative situations where people don't know what they're getting into. They end up doing all sort of menial personal tasks for whoever they're working for and not really getting the experience.

To schools, I recommend not posting and promoting illegal internships on campus, which happens all too often. Ninety-five percent of schools, according to one survey, post unpaid internships on campus without really looking into the legality, without filtering any but the most egregious illegal situations.

I recommend that schools look into how they're charging students to go off campus to work unpaid because of this whole academic credit issue. [Students] are not only working unpaid somewhere, but they're also paying often several thousand dollars to their school to do that.

In terms of the government, I recommend that the law be enforced. There is a law related to interns called the Fair Labor Standards Act, which is the key piece of legislation that protects workers in the U.S., and it's simply not enforced around interns.

To companies themselves, I set a recommendation, saying that paid internships work better across the board. If you're only offering unpaid situations, first of all, you're running the risk of getting in trouble with the law, which can be embarrassing and really not worth the penny that you're saving. You're also not getting access to the best talent. You're closing yourself off from a lot of people who can't afford to work unpaid. You're essentially saying, "There's only one way in here."

For young people themselves, know [your] rights. Take a clear-eyed and pragmatic approach to the world of internships, and have an exit strategy. Be focused on the transition to a regular job, to a paying job, and [do] not get caught in the internship trap.

I do think it needs to be an approach coming from all different directions and the change I would most like to see is just to roll back this idea that's becoming prevalent that working unpaid is normal ... When in fact, it's against the law, it's unethical, and it's problematic for the broader society.

[See 10 Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Internship.]

You've talked before about the myth of academic credit. Can you explain that?

The idea is out there among many employers that you don't have to pay an intern no matter what work they do as long as they're receiving academic credit from their university. I can understand why that's out there because there's some ambiguity with the law, but essentially there's a six-point test … which the Department of Labor has, which is based on a Supreme Court decision, which says basically, if you don't want to pay your interns, the internship has to meet these six criteria. The Department of Labor has come out and clearly said the academic credit is only relating to one of those criteria, so given that you have to fulfill all six of them, just because the student is getting academic credit doesn't mean they're not still entitled to minimum wage.

Many employers … say, "We don't pay, but we do offer academic credit." That's disingenuous for two reasons. Employers don't offer academic credit, schools do … Second of all, they're setting a false dichotomy. Just because [students] are receiving academic credit, they still have that fundamental right to be paid.

Students are backed into corner here. How can they help eliminate the no-pay culture without penalizing themselves?

Students could do a better job of talking amongst themselves and spreading the word about bad employers, about bad situations ... Ideally young people would band together more and take up this issue that's really affecting a whole generation.