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Don’t give it away for free

By Becca Hoekstra
The Guardsman

If the local coffee shop offered the opportunity to work for them FOR FREE, would you take them up on the offer?

I seriously hope not.

So why are internships an exception?

Becoming an intern is yet another mandatory step on the educational ladder that leads to a “good job.”

According to the The National Association of Colleges and Employers, more than half of 2011 graduates had internships.

They’re not exactly an option when almost every single job opportunity—from barista to registered nurse—requires 2 to 3 years of experience for an entry level position.

(Which begs the question: if I had work experience, why would I even be looking for an entry level job? What sort of wacked out expectations has this poor economy led to?!)

Internships require a fair amount of time and work—be it actual dream-job experience or, God forbid, delivering coffee. And yet, compensation for internships is increasingly rare. Nearly 47 percent of 1.5 million interns went unpaid last year. College students are taking unpaid work for months at a time during a period of incredibly high tuition and explosive student debt.

Somehow this is considered normal. The morality or legality of free labor being acceptable just because it has the title “intern” slapped on it has become utterly pervasive in our cultural thought.

And have I got an information bomb for you: most unpaid internships are illegal (unless you’re working for a non-profit.)

The Fair Labor Standards Act sets guidelines for unpaid internships, such as: the internship provides training “similar to that given in an educational environment,” the intern “does not displace regular employees” and the “employer derives no immediate advantage from the intern’s work”. Meaning, if the intern is doing work they NEED to be paid.

Employers are manipulating student’s desperation in order to procure free labor for these entry-level jobs. And receiving college credit doesn’t free an employer from having to provide compensation—especially when these intern positions are most likely benefiting the company.
Interestingly, these rules have not been altered or changed since 1947. And certainly haven’t been reinforced at all as of late. It’s time to demand some new legislation regarding the greed of common-day business practices and the exploitation of students. Seriously, with an average of $25,000 of debt on our shoulders—a paid internship is the least we deserve.

Unpaid internships are closing the door for many passionate, intelligent students who don’t have a large enough bank account to forgo making money over the summer or during the school year.
Because these students like to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, like eating and paying rent, they are missing out on valuable additions to their resume and potential job connections. This may mean they’ll never be able to achieve that high-paying, perfect job—but that kid with the yacht and dad with connections certainly can. So much for social mobility.

I’ve spoken to other students who are terrified at the idea of asking to be paid.

We believe that if we rock the boat, we will be immediately replaced by someone who has no problem working for free – and then we’ll be left with absolutely nothing, not even an extra line on our resume to make ourselves more hirable. Or worse, we’ll slam shut the door to our dream industry by earning ourselves a bad reputation of being too demanding.

And yet, unpaid internships don’t actually lead to much job advancement, either. Studies show paid interns spend more time on career-related duties, while unpaid interns get to make copies.

Job offers are given to 61 percent of paid interns and only 38 percent of those who are unpaid.

Paid interns start off with higher salaries to begin with. So instead of taking several unpaid internships, up until your thirties, building that resume—it might be better to take a stand immediately, earn some money and show that you believe in your own self-worth.

That’s what this is all about—believing YOU, and your time, are WORTH SOMETHING.

So don’t take that internship without being offered minimum wage. Bring proof of the illegality of the whole situation, and don’t let some big-wig take advantage of you.

Speaking from personal experience: when I asked to be paid during my internship at  public radio station KALW, they didn’t let me go. They even reimbursed me for all the time I had worked unpaid. And now I pretty much work there.

If we stand together, and inform each other, we can make it impossible for businesses to find students willing to work for free.

Follow Becca on Twitter: @heartbreak_news

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