A few months ago, I participated in the 140 Character Conference here in Des Moines. The format is pretty cool, kind of like a mini-Ted Ex. I could have spoken on any subject under the sun, but choose one that is near and dear to my heart: Student internships.
Recently, I read a Warren Buffet quote, "You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out," in reference to the shady financial practices perpetrated by Wall Street. The same is true with internships. When the economy turns for the worse, you find out which companies are ethical and which are not.
Unpaid internships are illegal unless they meet very specific criteria. Any company who solicits unpaid interns is swimming naked in the human resources pool. The logical way to stop these internships is to encourage students not to take unpaid jobs. But, its much more complicated.
Universities are complicating the situation by posting unpaid internships right next to paid ones, which implies a tacit endorsement of the practices. To make matters worse, professors and programs at the college level emphazise the importance of internships in getting a job upon graduation. And I'll admit, as a hiring manager, I am usually more impressed by a student who has managed an internship or two on top of their academic duties.
Probably the most important thing to point out is that the students who need these internships are the LEAST LIKELY to rat on their potential employers. They're so desperate to get the experience that they will shell out a lot of money to live near the internship and work for free. The down economy is making the proverbial tide go out and stay out.
What's the answer to cracking down on these unpaid internships? Here are a few suggestions?
- Speak out. When you see an unpaid internship offered, call the U.S. Labor Dept and report it. States have federal DOL offices. Here is the contact info.
- Forbid your child from working at an unpaid internship.
- Call local colleges and universities and ask them what their policy is on posting or tacitly encouraging unpaid internships. Follow up with the university adminsistration with a letter that contains the rules for internhips.
- If your child has worked an unpaid internship, you may be able to collect back pay, even if they agreed to work for free. Contact a labor law attorney to see if you have a claim.
- Tell people you know that most internships, unless they exist to benefit the intern, are most likely illegal.
Companies who play be the rules should be the most concerned. Big, for-profit companies who offer unpaid internships are cheating the young people that they employee. It's wrong. And I'm speaking out.