Sunday, April 3, 2011

On unpaid internships

Passionate op-ed in today's NYT scolding universities for posting and giving credit for unpaid internships.  There are murky legal issues associated with unpaid internships:
The United States Department of Labor says an intern at a for-profit company may work without pay only when the program is similar to that offered in a vocational school, benefits the student, does not displace a regular employee and does not entitle the student to a job; in addition, the employer must derive “no immediate advantage” from the student’s work and both sides must agree that the student is not entitled to wages.

Employers and their lawyers appear to believe that unpaid interns who get academic credit meet those criteria, but the law seems murky; the Labor Department has said that “academic credit alone does not guarantee that the employer is in compliance.”
Ethical issues as well -- regardless of what the Labor Department says, I personally think that well-established corporations should be a bit embarrassed that they are not at least paying minimum wage. 

Yet each and every summer for the last three years, Jenkins MBAs have accepted unpaid internships, some of which has been posted on MBA JobsLink.  In many cases the students have received one hour of academic credit, but usually it is not allowed to count toward graduation.  We try to make sure the hour of credit is scheduled in such a way that the student does not have to pay extra tuition. 

Why does the MBA Career Center post unpaid internships?  One simple answer -- in many ways we now have an audition-based job market.  Companies want to sample a potential employee's actual productivity and behavior because the costs of developing top-level managerial talent have risen.  They can get away with unpaid internships as a means of doing this because the job market has such an excess supply of potentially qualified workers. 

Believe me -- we prefer our students to take well-paid internships that can be leveraged into full-time job opportunities.  But for certain groups of students (internationals, those who are making big career changes, those with little to no work experience) an unpaid internship with the right company can be of greater long term value than a paid experience that ends up being a summer job and nothing more. That is why we will continue to post such opportunities and, in some cases, encourage our students to accept them. 

Someday the job market will pick up (Friday's report was encouraging, but let's wait and see what happens to government jobs this summer).  At that point companies with unpaid internships will have to change their practices.  Even you, SAS Institute. 

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