Illustrating unpaid internships

Six months ago, I spoke on an internship panel and pissed off everyone – because I offered to pay students for their work.

I’m editor of Debt.com, which (like everything else these days) is owned by a bigger company. Usually, a Human Resources rep recruits at college job and internship fairs. But on this day in October, everyone in HR was busy. So they sent me to sit on a “Department of English Internship Panel” at a local public university.

There were four other employers at the head table: a book publisher, a U.S. senator’s office, an SEO company, and a marketing agency. When it was my turn to talk, I mentioned Debt.com pays $10 an hour, and I knew other internships in the company offered the same.

“I wish it could be more,” I concluded.

And with that, shit got unreal.

Unpaid and unhinged

As the words left my mouth, I saw the Career Center director staring back at me with wide eyes. A woman from the English Department, who had greeted me so sweetly when I walked in, looked like she just swallowed her own vomit.

I glanced to my left and right. My fellow panelists were glaring at me. I thought I might have snot hanging from my nose. I instinctively wiped my face.

Apparently, I had done something even more repulsive. I mentioned money.

Everyone who wasn’t a student desperately spun their defense for not paying interns. Besides the usual –” valuable experience,” “resume building,” “networking opportunities” – there was this gem from the marketing woman sitting to my right: “We have a snack closet!”

Just as I was about to ask how a snack closet works, the English Department woman chimed in: “And you can earn up to three credits! You just pay…”

And then it hit me.

While I already knew unpaid internships were evil – I’ve advised a college newspaper for two decades – I didn’t realize until that moment just how organized this crime was. Everyone is in on it, except for the students…

  • The school either requires students to take an unpaid internship or hard-sells its dubious virtues.
  • The school lures marginal employers with promises of slave labor.
  • Those employers agree to lie on the appropriate paperwork so this free work skirts federal law.
  • The school charges full tuition for zero overhead – no need to hire a professor or even air-condition a classroom.

It’s legalized human trafficking. Except human traffickers don’t charge their slaves tuition.

The U.S. Department of Labor allows unpaid internships if, and only if…

  • “the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment.”
  • “the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.”
  • “the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.”

…but every unpaid intern I’ve known – and in 20 years, it’s been a lot – says none of those things ever happened. Schools are supposed to monitor these employers, but what’s their incentive? If they obey the law,  their tuition-for-nothing scheme dries up.

After the panel discussion, I told a few people about my surprising morning. They all laughed, shrugged, and said, “What can you do?” Then they answered their own question: “Until students complain, not much.”

I tell you this six-month-old tale because I’ve just learned some students have finally complained. Publicly, if cautiously. It might be the start of something grand. And I’ll help…

Unpaid and unfair

On April 19, Auburn’s student newspaper wrote a hesitant editorial. While The Auburn Plainsman wasn’t exactly scathing, it was at least resolute. Under the headline, Auburn should stop penalizing interns, the paper opined…

Essentially, charging students to work a job is a backward system that discourages taking on internships.

It contributes to the already incredibly high costs of college education and can lead to issues with debt from student loans or serve to bar low-income students from such opportunities altogether.

The editorial concluded: “Auburn University should not charge the full tuition and fees of a three-credit-hour course for internships.”

This was the first time I’ve heard students publicly call out unpaid internships. For some reason, I’ve only heard professors lament the trend.

In fact, three days earlier, a Hofstra professor had opined for Bloomberg, Pay Your Interns, Corporate America. And just last week on a private listserv for the College Media Association, student newspaper and broadcast advisers blasted unpaid internships. The three-day-long discussion was best summed up by this comment…

Can we, as advisers, try to stamp out unpaid internships? … How is that fair to lower-income students who can’t possibly take that internship? Such practices reinforce the never-ending advantage to students born to affluent families and the never-ending debt for the less-affluent who might take out additional loans to be able to participate.

Yet at the same time, there was this announcement: Sinclair is bringing on hundreds of unpaid interns. Yup, the sleazy broadcasting group is looking for “highly motivated, dedicated students” willing to work long hours and only “receive college credit.”

Like crystal meth and child prostitution, the easiest way to solve this problem is by strangling the demand side. Sure, you can police the suppliers, but they’ll always find a loophole to keep plying their trade.

We must convince college students not to apply for unpaid work. When schools and employers cynically pimp a few success stories of unpaid interns who later landed full-time jobs, we need to share the sad stories of thousands of others who worked for nothing and learned nothing.

Here’s my small contribution…

Unload on unpaid internships

The first three college media outlets who cover this topic – either as news, feature, or opinion – will receive $100. Wired to them, no questions asked.

The school year is ending, and right about now, most students are sweating final exams. But summer is usually slow for college newspapers and TV stations. What a perfect time to launch an editorial crusade against unpaid internships – and get paid while doing it.

Email me links at journoterrorist@gmail.com. I’ll also promote the hell out of your coverage.

First reported, first rewarded.

UPDATE: A friend has informed me, “The Dept. of Labor actually lets people complain confidentially about unpaid internships. Some can even get back pay.”