3 ways to solve the free intern debacle

My initial reaction to the April 2 New York Times piece "The Unpaid Intern, Illegal or Not" was one of confusion. I have done a number of unpaid internships, and never in my right mind believed them to be illegal -- even if at the time I was doing menial tasks.

Isn't that the point? To teach you to be a drone, and follow orders without question? You are just one cog in a machine, and you must perform well so that the machine you are in can perform well. If you don't like the machine you're in, then get out of that career.

That's not to say I advocate businesses (and interns) breaking the law. Far from it. What makes sense to me is a system that allows students to get the crucial experience they need, while allowing businesses that accommodate these pre-entry level workers some sort of benefit for the training and opportunities they provide.

Almost everyone I know has had an unpaid internship at some point in their college life -- some majors practically require it -- and most of the experiences could qualify as "illegal" because they were not strictly "educational." Granted, these folks interned at music, media, and film companies, industries known to be "abusive" of their interns. One magazine I worked for long ago used interns like cleaning ladies for the higher-up's apartments or had them perform other degrading personal tasks in the style of "The Devil Wears Prada." One friend who owns a recording studio says it's universal practice for studios to use and abuse interns, who work 40-hour weeks and get zero pay (though they might be able to sneak in and record their band's demo at 3 a.m. for free).

The Times piece mentioned the 1947 criteria for what constitutes an unpaid internship, and one item stands out for obvious reasons. It states that employers may "derive no immediate advantage" from the intern's activities. Yet I would be hard pressed to find a company that hired interns out of the goodness of their hearts, and not because of the monetary benefits. Free labor! How can that not be an advantage to a business? Nevertheless, perhaps some businesses are taking it too far in abusing their interns.

That said, the internship experience is apparently broken, and needs fixing. To prevent internships from becoming downright abusive (by breaking the law and not offering an educational experience), here are my three ideas on how to fix the internship process:
  • Academic institutions should keep track of their interns and their interns' experience assessments. If many interns are complaining that they are not getting an educational experience, or their internship did not lead to future employment, the academic institution should take note, warn new and potential interns, and even file a complaint with the Department of Labor. Currently, the Department of Labor is not investigating any firms or businesses for "illegal internships" or businesses not meeting the six criteria set in 1947, but would be happy to investigate if they received a complaint.
  • Tax credits for businesses. All businesses offering internships should get a tax credit. They are, after all, providing an educational experience. This tax credit should apply to individuals as well: if a lawyer or a publisher has an intern, he or she should get a tax credit. This tax credit would also act as an incentive to keep the internships as an educational experience; if many students complained, the academic institution would stop sending interns to that person or business.
  • Academic institutions should not charge students to engage in an internship, especially if that internship is unpaid. There is no good reason why a college or university should charge a student to take an internship. That student is not using campus resources nor are they using campus facilities. The fact that academic institutions get away with this practice is comical and sad at the same time, as it is just one example of the greed running rampant in higher education today.
In short, the picture is more complicated than the Times makes it sound. Is it exploitative if you agree ahead of time to the terms and know the price involved? The idea of free labor while studying a craft goes way back to the idea of apprenticeship in the Middle Ages. Surely the apprentice had to do cleaning, repairs, other tasks that had nothing to do with his or her craft, and follow strict rules. Like the inability to leave the house without the master's permission or engage in any sexual relations.

I'm not suggesting interns give up their sex lives. Heaven forbid. But they should give up the notion that a contract they agreed to constitutes a gun to the head. Someone complaining today about making a ton of photocopies or even wiping down door handles to prevent swine flu sounds a little ridiculous. We of the 21st century should be at least a bit tougher than our Medieval counterparts. Just as it was centuries ago with apprenticeships, today's internships are vital in helping us get a job in the future while also giving us college credit.

Remember those recording studios my friend told me about? The overworked interns of today become the highly-paid session engineers of tomorrow.
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