Editorial and Dissent: Unpaid internship programs
Internships are designed to be a form of educational work experience. Thus, the best internships are those in which students learn about an industry or type of job by engaging in the kind of work they would do as an employee. One of the requirements for unpaid internships, however, is that the work not be of any immediate benefit to the employer, essentially making the position of little use to either the student or the employer.
If state regulators begin to enforce current laws more strictly, as is happening in California and Oregon, it is likely that many companies will stop offering internships. Most companies that offer unpaid internships do so because their small size and other constraints prevent them from being able to pay for short-term, less productive workers. Given that there are students who benefit from this real work experience and are willing to work without pay, enforcement of this law would unfairly limit opportunities for many students. In this case, it is fine to let the market dictate pay structures even though the market says that there is no need to pay interns.
Changing the law would ensure that employers are able to hire unpaid interns who do work beneficial to the company, as they currently do. Interns whose work is substantial and relevant to the company often gain the most from their time. Regulations that limit the amount of busy work done by interns and provide avenues for complaint and redress are appropriate, as are those that block interns from displacing paid employees. But the requirements that work be of no immediate benefit and that interns receive primarily academic or vocational-style training should be removed.
Unpaid internships at for-profit companies, like those at nonprofit organizations, often favor students who can afford to not work during the summer. While this is unfortunate, the scenario in which this law is enforced — where there are no unpaid internships in the private sector and fewer internships overall — is even worse. The current regulations should be modified so that employers can offer unpaid internships to students who want them.
The majority’s argument mistakenly characterizes illegal, unpaid internship programs as a scarce resource that must be preserved and ignores the fact that paid internship programs are based on a time-tested economic model that provides mutual benefit to employers and interns.
Though interns require more training and oversight than full-time employees, they are cheaper than any full-time hire. Moreover, they provide employers with a risk-free trial period when they can test out potential full-time workers. This is a mutual good, as employers can make well-informed decisions about potential job candidates, and interns have a chance to prove their worth in a measure other than a cover letter, resume or interview.
The majority mistakenly treats unpaid internships like paid ones, which are often more fruitful experiences since both the employer and intern have a financial stake in making the most out of the intern’s time. Interns take paid jobs more seriously, and, more critically, employers are motivated to keep track of paid interns to maximize the return on their investment, which naturally leads to a better learning experience. In contrast, unpaid interns have no such motivation, and employers have no stake in supervising them (unless they are investing money in a training program, which the current law already recognizes).
Admittedly, it will be difficult to fix a largely broken system of unpaid internships that allows only a select few to network and gain work experience. But state regulators have taken encouraging steps by more rigorously screening employers, and Princeton should follow suit. Career Services should not be complicit in this system by advertising illegal unpaid internships to students, especially given our commitment to financial aid. Instead, they should encourage students to find paid internships and should more rigorously assess whether currently advertised internships are legal.
If universities nationwide were to discourage their undergraduates from taking these illegal internships, companies would be forced to reconsider paying their interns. Paid internship programs provide inherent, mutual benefits to interns and employers, and once companies realize they can no longer exploit free, illegal labor, they will catch on.
Justin Cahill ’11, Chelsea Ayres ’12 and Brittany Sanders ’13