“Half of us are victims of this illegal act after college. It’s really not OK” says Joseph Lamar in a social cartoon he recently reposted on Upworthy.com. In it, cartoonist Matt Bors berates businesses who hire unpaid interns, saying he “opposes all unpaid internships, even when there’s college credit.”
Upon reading this, I was a bit confused. Why in the world would someone want to halt recent grads from getting a head start in their field? I read on, and it all made sense: this guy wants equal opportunity so acutely that if he can’t have a chance, no one can.
In his introduction of the cartoon, Lamar recalled turning down an unpaid internship in a big city because he would not be able to afford the living expenses. Now, this is a valid point; working without income and trying to stay fed and clothed would be nearly impossible without outside help. But most unpaid internships are designed to be flexible so as to accommodate school schedules and secondary jobs.
Forbes contributor Gina Gachman suggests this in her article “Lessons Learned From Unpaid Internships,” “…most people I knew had a paying job plus an internship. Is it tough to balance school, your waitressing gig, and your internship? Yes. Is that called paying your dues and having a good work ethic? Yes. If you don’t have a paying job or a trust fund and you’re complaining about your unpaid internship, you’re doing it wrong.”
Internships are a lot to take on, but that’s why they look so good on resumes. That’s why they’re often very competitive, sought after positions. They demonstrate that the prospective employee is diligent and driven, especially if he or she was innovative enough to make ends meet while taking on an unpaid internship. If you have the opportunity of an internship and you are bickering about wages, you misunderstand what an internship is, and you need to step down to make room for a more motivated replacement. Believe me, there are plenty of them.
If there is any confusion as to what an unpaid internship should entail, let me enlighten you. There are six criteria enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Divison that, if followed, allow a business to accommodate unpaid interns (i.e. trainees). They are:
1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction;
2. The training is for the benefit of the trainees;
3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation;
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded;
5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period; and
6. The employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.
If a company is upholding these standards, I find it baffling that anyone would have so much disdain for a gig designed to be a learning experience.
Now, the author of this cartoon isn’t hating on the opportunity of internships; he does not deny their benefit. He does, however, bash the system for stealing an estimated $2 billion from interns and for “wring[ing] every last ounce of labor out of young people.” He calls this “socially accepted stealing.”
First of all, grads should not be blindly walking into internships with the assumption that they’ll start making their millions right then and there. That Millennialist attitude is what is fueling this trend of lawsuits against internship-providing companies, and it needs to stop. Internships are for job-prep, not for paying off college loans, as Lamar suggests. To claim that businesses are illegitimately procuring labor from interns is way off target.
Are interns always stumbling upon groundbreaking tidbits of knowledge in their day-to-day activities? No. In fact, experts figure 20-50% of their hours are spent doing busy work. While that’s a good amount of time, the rest of it is spent getting invaluable experience that could not be attained in a classroom. One could hardly call networking within the office, getting job experience, and ensuring a glowing recommendation from a supervisor synonymous with “wringing every last ounce of labor out of young people.” I call that getting ahead–for free! And if you’re even paid for the experience, that’s a luxury.
Before finishing my freshman year at CSUB, I learned of an internship opportunity for a county supervisor in my area. The prospect of getting firsthand local government job experience as an undergrad thrilled me and I was eager to get the position, pay or no pay. Going into the interview, I was prepared to work for no compensation as I would be getting course credit for my summer work. However, the supervisor needed a full-time employee for the summer and offered above minimum wage for the job. The entire experience was a luxury, not to mention the perks of a paycheck. But I’ll call that internship what it was: a job.
This generation of entitlement expects to get the humble yet admirable title of “intern,” yet tries to sue the benefactors for not paying up. Solution: either apply for a summer job or an internship, but don’t file a lawsuit because you don’t have your terms straight.
On top of claiming that interns are getting jipped, Bors goes on to accuse them of being “rich and clueless.” He says the only people who can afford to work for free are those with “daddy money (maybe mommy money if she leaned in.)” Besides being outright offensive to the hardworking interns out there who deserve the positions they have achieved, this is just not true. As stated before, unpaid internships are done right with the help of another paying job. This is do-able, too: Gachman of Forbes can vouch for that. She worked (at least) three unpaid internships in her career, and supported herself by doing side jobs. “I waited tables and moved benches around before the Tommy Hilfiger show during fashion week to pay the bills” she wrote in Forbes.
The motivated find a way to make it work, and the ones who have family support are fortunate–but not clueless. The clueless ones are the interns who try to sue their employers after being “too scared to ask for compensation” while on the job. I bet Dajia Davenport won’t be getting a very good recommendation from Elite Model Magazine after suing them for $50 million following her internship earlier this year. Meanwhile, Attorney Daniel O’Meara predicts companies like Elite will have to scrap their internship programs in the wake of so many lawsuits “and just tell everyone to work a little bit harder.”
O’Meara has a very startling point, especially with internjustice.com lawyer Maurice Pianko estimating “If there were another 50 lawsuits like this it would pretty much end internships.” Bors echos Pianko when he urges, “We need to crumble this practice and create a workforce where the pressure is on the employers to pay, not on the workers to shut up and accept their ‘opportunity.'”
Eliminating internships is not what the workforce needs; in fact it needs quite the opposite. Internships are designed to benefit the intern, and college grads should be able to to compete for them while they still exist. Grads want internship opportunities, otherwise no one would offer them. Students desire the ability to gradually enter the workforce, and internships cater to all of their desires as newbies. They allow us to get a feel for a job without having to make a long term commitment. We get to figure how to maneuver through the working world while it’s socially acceptable to not know how just yet. We get the chance to network, build up a reference list and simply learn the ropes.
The fact of the matter is that the workforce is competitive, and any ambitious grad would jump at the opportunity to get his or her foot in the door. To say that the less fortunate don’t have the luxury of working as an intern is misguided. The driven don’t sue, they find a way.
Chloe Varvell | Cal State Bakersfield | @ChloeVarvell