This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, Or Interns

April 5th, 2010 by alyx · 3 Comments · fail

Slave labor apparently isn’t legal. Who knew? NYTimes reports that the time-honored tradition of fetching coffee without pay in order to get a big name on your resume might have to go the way of the dodo, as more firms have been exploiting the “unpaid internship” to replace paid employees with naive, eager-beaver college kids who are lucky if they get college credit and the occasional sandwich:

“If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,” said Nancy J. Leppink, the acting director of the department’s wage and hour division.

Ms. Leppink said many employers failed to pay even though their internships did not comply with the six federal legal criteria that must be satisfied for internships to be unpaid. Among those criteria are that the internship should be similar to the training given in a vocational school or academic institution, that the intern does not displace regular paid workers and that the employer “derives no immediate advantage” from the intern’s activities — in other words, it’s largely a benevolent contribution to the intern.

I think exactly zero internships actually qualify as a “benevolent contribution to the intern” for which the employer “derives no immediate advantage,” unless I’m asking the intern to run and get coffee I won’t drink just because the trip is good for his cardiovascular health. NYT reports on several lucky interns who had tasks like processing mail, or wiping door handles down to prevent swine flu. (We like to think those are lessons in bulls**t artistry, in other words, in learning to put a spin on things: “My internship involved global logistics and large-scale crisis management!” You’re hired, kid — get to work writing me some PR.)

Naturally, because there’s no warfare like class warfare, this is cited as a privilege problem, too. Mom and Dad have to have some fairly deep pockets to get you an apartment in Manhattan from which you can be based while taking your ‘prestigious’ internship in polishing Anna Wintour’s shoes. Of course, start enforcing the “benevolent contribution” clause and the privilege problem will get even worse — no college kid is going to get free on-the-job-training unless Mommy or Daddy is in the C-suite somewhere.

But really, “internships” are going to have to go back to being paying gigs where people actually learn something? I guess LOLFed Intern Search 2010 is over. We might’ve gotten away with it, if not for that meddling Labor Department…

3 Comments so far ↓

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  • WT

    Some universities help select internships for students during the school year for coursework (field studies) where grades are based on essays.

    Here the students are on a mission and advised by their school on what they should and shouldn’t be getting involved with. Thus, there does exist such a thing as “benevolent contribution to the intern” for which the employer “derives no immediate advantage.”

    Of course that accounts for about 1% of all internships. Nowadays people 25-35 are forced into “internship” roles as trainees.

  • rebecca

    Many moons ago, The Baffler had a great piece on this. I think you can download here if you’re so inclined.

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