Sunday, April 4, 2010

To Intern for Free or Not

The New York Times recently had an interesting (and surprising) article titled Growth of Unpaid Internships May Be Illegal, Officials Say.

Unpaid internships are a messy issue. We don't want workers to be exploited. However, if somebody is willing to work for free to gain experience, build their resume, or for a host of other reasons, shouldn't we let them?

My personal experience says yes. I am nearing the conclusion of an unpaid internship. Do I feel exploited or used? Certainly not! I took the job knowing that I wouldn't be paid. It was stated clearly in my contract. On the contrary, the internship has been one of the most enlightening and interesting work experiences that I've had.

In China, I also mentored an unpaid intern. If he had immediately applied for a paid position, he would have been rejected - I can say that for certain, because I would have made the call. However, after 3 months of unpaid work, the company offered him a paid position. We made a job for him because he proved that he deserved it.

Those cases show only one side of the story, and I realize it. There are plenty of people who take unpaid internships doing menial work. They don't learn much, and they are not compensated. Should those internships be allowed to exist?

I honestly don't know . . . I tend to believe that people are free to turn down those internships and they should turn them down. If the internship were so bad that everybody turned it down, the employer would have to offer pay. On the other hand, there is always the fear that there will be nothing better . . .

However, I'd guess that most people do not want bad unpaid internships to exist. Let's go with that. Then here's the big problem: how do you get rid of the bad unpaid internships while still allowing the good ones?

I don't see a way given current law.

The truth is that my internship wouldn't have existed if the company were forced to pay me. The company was a start-up with two people and little cash. I suppose they could have given me equity, but that's equivalent to nothing unless I were with the company until the equity actually had a value attached.

Perhaps legislators could introduce a "mutual benefit" test as suggested by Camille Olson, a lawyer mentioned in the article. That would certainly be a start, but it sounds fuzzy. I don't know how I would prove the "value" that I gained from my internship, but I know it was there. Though given the evidence that my employer could pull together, I have my doubts that they could win in court if I claimed that I was unfairly compensated.

So what to do? We could protect some (probably those with the least options) while preventing others - like me and my former employee - from gaining experience that opens doors. Instead we could open the doors for mutually beneficial unpaid internships, knowing that some unfortunate and unprepared people will be exploited.

I lean towards the latter. I'm sympathetic to people who may be exploited, but I people should take responsibility for their decisions. If they accept a bad internship, it's generally not the end of the world1. They'll learn from it.

However, like I said, it's a messy issue.

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1 I should know, I spent a summer at the Wisconsin State Department of Revenue entering tax information. I was paid minimum wage, but my brain was so numb at the end that I still felt exploited.