COLUMN – Internships: an expose of coffee runs and unfair labor practices

By Brian Pierce


They’re every college student’s dream. This summer, many of you have been fortunate enough to win an internship with some place of employment where you can watch your employers do more significant work than you in the hopes that you will one day take their place.

It is the perfect first step for a college undergrad, the quintessential leg-up before students are finally forced to get actual jobs after graduation.

But could it be that the world of internships has a seedy underbelly just waiting to be exposed to the light of day? The sort of thing 60 Minutes would take a grainy, hidden-camera view of, complete with tearful tell-all interviews with exploited interns and embarrassing confessions by employers?

The answer is yes, actually. According to the online magazine, unpaid internships are sometimes illegal and almost always unfair.

Our story begins with the Fair Labor Standards Act, enacted in 1938, which, among other things, created a federal minimum wage. Amended repeatedly between now and then, the act now has an exception for interns who qualify as “trainees,” who need not be paid so long as they meet two requirements: first, that they are not doing the same work as a normal employee; second, that the employer does not receive “immediate advantage” from the student’s work.

This means that when you get an internship which requires you to answer phones or make copies – work that a regular employee could do and which provides an “immediate advantage,” your employer is breaking the law. But since interns are more than willing to do the work for free while accepting the reward of the possibility of advancement, nobody files a complaint.

And indeed, these students are not being scammed out of anything – internships get a bad rap, but they can be invaluable experiences.

So why do I bring it up? Why would I want to mess with this symbiotic relationship between employer and intern, something which seems like the definition of a victimless crime? If students have become the educated, white-collar versions of illegal immigrants – performing the jobs that self-respecting college graduates just won’t do – why should we object?

The problem is that being an intern costs money. If a political science major wants to intern on Capitol Hill, she must be able to pony up the dough to fly there, live there and eat there.

Universities that can afford it have been able to provide stipends to students who find unpaid internships, but for those universities that can’t, only those students with enough disposable income can afford to acquire these internships, who then have a distinct advantage heading into the workforce.

Employers should be willing to offer interns more than a couple hours of course credit, not because they deserve more, but because by not paying their interns, employers are losing out on qualified potential applicants who just don’t have the requisite high incomes.

Besides, the longer they wait, the more they risk getting a knock on the door from a 60 Minutes camera crew.

Brian can be reached at [email protected]