Unpaid interns: Working without a paycheck causes economic hardship

Published: Friday, Nov. 30 2012 12:30 p.m. MST

Working late hours is just one "perk" of being an unpaid intern.

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It is a hard dilemma for students. Unpaid internships can give great experience, bolster resumes and provide contacts for a well-compensated career. They also create great economic burdens in a down economy.

World On Campus explains how students with unpaid internships receive fewer job offers than those with paid internships: "Paid interns may be offered full-time jobs more because of the assigned duties, said Jacqueline Taylor, director of the Vocatio Center for Life Calling and Career at Union University, in Jackson, Tenn. Students who receive compensation for their work often perform more professional tasks and projects, while many companies assign unpaid interns administrative duties. Though students may struggle financially for the duration of the internship, Taylor thinks that working hard without compensation demonstrates character."

Melissa Korn at The Wall Street Journal "At Work" blog asks if unpaid internships are worth it: "The (National Association of Colleges and Employers) released a study this week showing that 60 percent of 2012 graduates who worked a paid internship got at least one job offer, while just 37 percent of those in unpaid gigs got any offers. That's slightly — only slightly — better than the offer rate for graduates who skipped internships entirely, at 36 percent."

Heather R. Huhman, author of "Lies, Damned Lies & Internships," told the Wall Street Journal that nobody needs to know if the internship was paid or not. "It's not like looking at a resume, a position screams paid or unpaid," she said.

Josh Sanburn at Time magazine writes about an unpaid intern, Diana Wang, who is suing the Hearst Corporation for not paying her during her unpaid internship: "On Feb. 1, the law firm Outten & Golden filed a class-action lawsuit … on behalf of Wang and any other unpaid and underpaid intern who worked at the company over the past six years. The lawsuit alleges that, among other things, Hearst violated federal and state labor laws by having Wang work as many as 55 hours a week without compensation."

As Sanburn put it, "In the workplace, there seem to be two long-established but contradictory rules: Everyone gets paid to work — unless there's mindless drivel to do, of course, and then you get college kids to do it for free. … Thanks to the struggling economy, companies were now relying on interns to do entry-level work without having to pay them wages or benefits."

Yet, according to a New York Times article by Steven Greenhouse, students are flocking to unpaid internships: "No one keeps statistics on the number of college graduates taking unpaid internships, but there is widespread agreement that the number has significantly increased, not least because the jobless rate for college graduates age 24 and under has risen to 9.4 percent, the highest level since the government began keeping records in 1985. (Employment experts estimate that undergraduates work in more than one million internships a year, with Intern Bridge, a research firm, finding almost half unpaid.)"

In a long blog post about his story in the New York Times, Greenhouse quotes professor David Yamada of the Suffolk University Law School in Boston who said a point missing from the article was, "the fact that unpaid internships have huge social class impacts on folks who cannot afford to work for free, reinforcing economic barriers to certain professions long associated with the well-to-do."

EMAIL: mdegroote@desnews.com

Twitter: @degroote

Facebook: facebook.com/madegroote

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