What? Unpaid Internships Could Be Illegal? Ya Think?

I just read an awesome article at the New York Times about unpaid internships, and how it’s looking like this kind of thing is illegal.  The first time I read the headline, I thought to myself:

“Self, well DUH unpaid internships should be illegal.  Free work for “credit?”  Come on.  I may have been born at night, but it wasn’t LAST night.”

Then I read the article and saw that the unpaid internship positions that exist in the USA are being investigated.  I think that this is a good thing.

I have disagreed with colleagues over the years for HOURS about this very thing – exchanging “credit” and “experience” for what can sometimes be a 23-hour-a-day slave labor experience, day in and day out.  I think that it is absolute horse hockey (that’s poop, kids) that this still goes on.  I know that there are unpaid internships in the lighting industries, which is why this is relevant material.  I also know that people get taken advantage of in these situations.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure this out.

From the article:

No one keeps official count of how many paid and unpaid internships there are, but Lance Choy, director of the Career Development Center at Stanford University, sees definitive evidence that the number of unpaid internships is mushrooming – fueled by employers’ desire to hold down costs and students’ eagerness to gain experience for their résumés. Employers posted 643 unpaid internships on Stanford’s job board this academic year, more than triple the 174 posted two years ago.

In 2008, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 83 percent of graduating students had held internships, up from 9 percent in 1992. This means hundreds of thousands of students hold internships each year; some experts estimate that one-fourth to one-half are unpaid.

Come on.  A quarter to a HALF of internships are unpaid?  I think that this has a lot to do with the things that people tell students that they need to do when they’re trying to get a degree.  It was no different for me when I was in school – I was told on several occasions that an unpaid internship helps you have a better chance of getting a job.  I’m here to call BS on this, people.  I wasn’t having that crap when I was in school – I looked for a summer gig to do in place of an internship for credit in undergrad, where an internship was a requirement for graduation in my program.  So instead of getting abused, I went out as a master electrician on an opera tour and learned something new every day, AND got enough money to buy myself food (and cigarettes at that time, bad bad habit).

More from the NYT article – notice that the examples noted are all entertainment industry internships:

In California, officials have issued guidance letters advising employers whether they are breaking the law, while Oregon regulators have unearthed numerous abuses.

“We’ve had cases where unpaid interns really were displacing workers and where they weren’t being supervised in an educational capacity,” said Bob Estabrook, spokesman for Oregon’s labor department. His department recently handled complaints involving two individuals at a solar panel company who received $3,350 in back pay after claiming that they were wrongly treated as unpaid interns.

Many students said they had held internships that involved noneducational menial work. To be sure, many internships involve some unskilled work, but when the jobs are mostly drudgery, regulators say, it is clearly illegal not to pay interns.

One Ivy League student said she spent an unpaid three-month internship at a magazine packaging and shipping 20 or 40 apparel samples a day back to fashion houses that had provided them for photo shoots.

At Little Airplane, a Manhattan children’s film company, an N.Y.U. student who hoped to work in animation during her unpaid internship said she was instead assigned to the facilities department and ordered to wipe the door handles each day to minimize the spread of swine flu.

People, you have to use your brains nowadays.  Try your hardest not to let people take advantage of you just because you’re a student.  It’s true, sometimes internships pay, and a LOT of time an internship is something that you’ll get to learn a ton while you’re doing it – if the organization providing the internship has their stuff together to make sure you’re being taught.  Also, you can plan on doing some scut work while you’re an internship, this is totally true.  In the lighting industries, for example, if you’re working in entertainment lighting doing an internship, you could expect, for example, to be hosing the body fluids and mud off of feeder cable coming back into the shop from an outdoor music festival.  We’ve all been there.  You do it and you learn about that skill.  You might also get to run a Hog or a grandMA or something else cool during your internship.

Just remember, you gotta take care of yourself too.  So if you decide to take an unpaid internship for whatever reason, research it.  Then research it again, and again, and then sleep, and do it one more time.  Make sure that your time is worth what you’ll be getting.

Check out the NYT article here – great read.  Read both pages, the whole article is a bit shocking.  Also, thanks to for the hilarious image!