Should Interning for Free be a Government Issue?
Turns out it’s not just me that’s interested in the debate over unpaid internships, and their effects on the economy. No less a publication than the Wall Street Journal felt compelled to take up the issue on its editorial page this week, opining that the practice of offering unpaid internships isn’t “exploiting young people. It’s letting young people exploit an opportunity.”
While there’s a lot of truth in that statement, it does rather ignore—as does the editorial piece as a whole—one of the key issues of the debate: that the practice directly discriminates against young people without the financial wherewithal (or wealthy parents, to use the common parlance) to support themselves. As such, while the young workers the Journal claims to be going to bat for will indeed be getting the opportunity to develop marketable skills (which I have to agree is a worthy trade-off, provided the internship is actually focused on skills development rather than unpaid menial work as a cost-cutting exercise), the logical endpoint of the Journal‘s perspective is further stratification of the labor market.
While the Journal is correct in its assertion that “many young workers are willing to trade free labor for a chance to demonstrate their skills and build a resume for the next job,” it stands to reason that those who don’t have the means to support themselves during such a trade won’t have the same opportunities to move onto those next jobs.
Added to that, as I wrote earlier this week, selecting only from a pool of applicants who can afford to work for free is an approach that makes very little sense for any business leader interested in using their company’s intern program as a means for identifying potential future hires. And there’s increasing evidence that that is indeed where companies are finding their newest hires: TIME points out that companies hired as much as 70 percent of their class of interns in 2008.
So while young people—and their parents—may well be willing to make sacrifices to land the internship of their dreams, we’re clearly at the point where the question of willingness is trumped by a bigger issue: whether it’s right and, if not, what can be done about it. The folks at the Labor Department clearly feel that there are abuses of the system occurring, and are keen to stop them. The Journal feels that this is an example of government overreaching in its responsibilities, and would clearly prefer that companies be left to regulate themselves in this matter.
So is there a solution? Some middle ground that could be reached? Is the Labor Department’s approach a sensible one or an example of attempted social engineering gone mad? Whatever your thoughts, I’d love to hear them–and especially if you have current or recent interning experience, or are considering going down that route soon.