You said if I went to college, I'd get a good job — or, Why I'll never take another unpaid internship
The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.
There's a proposition no young, hungry job-seeker should entertain. It goes something like this:
The position is currently unpaid, but wow us with your skills, and it can lead to a paid writer position in the future.
That's a direct quote from a job ad I saw recently on Craigslist. And there are many more like it posted on job sites all over the Web. Companies would love nothing more than for young students and fresh graduates to do high-quality work in exchange for ... absolutely nothing. Except maybe the suggestion, the hint — not even a promise — of being paid someday, down the line, several calendar pages from now.
The trouble is, I don't live at home with Mommy and Daddy, nor will I take out loans to pay the bills while I work to add another line to my resume. The leasing office at my apartment complex doesn't take Monopoly money. And Philadelphia Gas Works doesn't accept, "I don't have the money now, but wow me with your natural gas and maybe, someday, I'll pay you for it."
Spotlight on fairness
Unpaid internships have garnered a lot of attention, especially with lawsuits Outten & Golden LLP is bringing against Hearst Corporation and Fox Searchlight, and rightly so. It's an important issue that is not completely separate from the topic of student loans, of which there are record numbers.
In a world where some companies only bring in interns who will gain college course credit for their work, what makes an unpaid internship? This is determined by the U.S. Department of Labor. Their test for whether an unpaid internship is lawful or not is based on the United States Supreme Court's ruling in Walling v. Portland Terminal Co., 330 U.S. 148, 152-53 (1947). An intern is considered an employee entitled to compensation if they're performing productive work and the company derives some benefit.
"If the employer would have hired additional employees or required existing staff to work additional hours had the interns not performed the work, then the interns will be viewed as employees and entitled to compensation under the FLSA," reads Fact Sheet No. 71 from the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division.
I'm almost ashamed to say that I've held several such internships. I've interned five (or six, depending on who you ask) times and only one internship paid. Perhaps most disheartening is that for all the time I spent working for no pay, my unpaid internships weren't the most educational of my work experiences.
The problem isn't just that college students are interning for no pay or course credit, but that recent graduates are often expected to grovel at the chance to work for nothing. (And that's to say nothing of the barriers this system creates for the poorest students.)
Thanks, but no thanks
A few days ago, I caught up with one of my favorite professors and talked to her about my prospects as a young journalist in Philadelphia. There are so few media jobs in Philadelphia — which would be fine if I could find paying freelance work. She suggested I contact a local editor.
"She doesn't pay much. Maybe $100 a piece," my professor said.
Fine by me! At least it pays, right?
Then I pitched the editor a perfect-for-her idea. To this, the editor replied that she had an opening in her summer internship program. Would I be interested?
I asked if it was paid.
"It is an unpaid internship," she said, "though many of our interns go on to do paid work for us following their internship."
See, there's a tiny little problem: From the time I was a kid, I was told that a college degree would net me a great paying job and I haven't quite given up on that dream. Just because I love to write and want to have a fulfilling job doesn't mean that I'm willing to do that job for nada more than that self-fulfillment.
So, thanks but no thanks. Your sorry pick-up line needs some work. Although some people may be willing to shell out $22,000 for a six-week unpaid internship at The United Nations, I'm looking for the sugar daddy of jobs.
Rosella Eleanor LaFevre is a writer, editor, blogger and writing coach in Philadelphia. If you would like to hire her (and pay her) you can find her on LinkedIn.