Lawsuits are in vogue this summer as unpaid interns go after their former employers. Hearst, Condé Nast, and even Gawker are feeling the heat as disgruntled former interns take them to court.
As a recent graduate who used paid and unpaid internships to garner experience and help figure out a career path, I was taken aback by the recent slew of suits. When I was a rising sophomore I started my first unpaid internship at a government relations office Washington, DC. The experience gained and relationships made were worth far more to me than the paycheck I could have made at a normal summer job. My first internship served as a springboard to many other internships – paid and unpaid – that eventually led to the career path I’m on now. The diversity of the internships I completed helped shape my professional skill set and prepared me to compete in an over-saturated job market.
As our modern economy gets more challenging and complex, unpaid internships are an integral part of preparing for the current job market.
As Forbes recently noted, the Supreme Court established nearly six decades ago in Walling vs. Portland Terminal Co. that unpaid internships are legal and exempt from minimum wage laws as long as six conditions are met. These conditions heavily emphasize that the internship is to the benefit of the intern, not the employer. Thus, so long as the intern is aware of, and agrees to, the fact that his internship is unpaid, and the employer approaches the internship with the intention of training the intern rather than just receiving output from him or her, the internship is lawful.
The most important point is that unpaid internships are voluntary, and if an intern feels that the training isn’t worth their time, they are free to leave. The inherent frivolity of these lawsuits is that these interns willingly chose to take an unpaid position to further their careers. By trying to extract damages from employers who generously provided a learning experience, they threaten a system that’s created opportunities for thousands of students and recent graduates.
Internships also serve as helpful evaluative periods for employers. During a period of supervised training, an employer can evaluate an intern’s professionalism, skill set, and ability to work collaboratively. Characteristics like these are difficult to glean from a resume or interview alone. Internships, therefore, are a low-risk method of giving a potential new hire a more thorough look. Even with entry-level jobs, recruiters prefer tried and tested applicants over a fresh graduate with only a degree.
Unfortunately, in today’s fragile economy, the alternative to an unpaid internship is often unemployment, and being unemployed at a young age can have reverberating costs for decades to come.
The most troubling facet of the recent lawsuits isn’t the misguided complaints of a few dissatisfied interns, but rather that they could ruin this avenue of opportunity for other aspiring young professionals. Despite the legal outcomes of these cases, the media attention surrounding this issue will surely have ramifications for how companies handle their internship programs – or if they’ll even have them at all.
This probably won’t be the end for unpaid internships, but they will certainly dry up in many instances – hurting the young people that need them the most.
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