Unpaid internships need reform

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: As they currently exist, unpaid internships are too often unfulfilling, exploitative and inaccessible to needy students.

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Unpaid internships are becoming a permanent rung on the ladder of career advancement for many American college students. But instead of serving as a valuable learning opportunity, unpaid internships are too often an exploitative way for companies to get free labor without offering much valuable experience or training in return. Making matters worse, unpaid interns are not protected by the same workplace regulations as are paid employees.

Desperately needed internship reform came in January when California State Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, introduced a state bill to give unpaid interns long-overdue protections against discrimination and sexual harassment. Despite the valuable opportunities some unpaid internships present, their inaccessibility to lower- and middle-income students, who cannot afford to work for free, remains wholly unaddressed. By strengthening oversight and improving accessibility, government and university officials can make the reality of unpaid internships closer to its optimal form.

Exploitative and useless internships today are all too common.  The enforcement of two key  Department of Labor stipulations for a valid unpaid internship — that interns do not do the same work as paid employees and that they receive training in an educational environment — must therefore be strengthened and more narrowly defined.

Transparency from employers seeking interns and the planning transparency requires, is perhaps the best and simplest way to guarantee interns a more fair and worthwhile experience. If employers and interns are required to agree on a detailed plan for the internship program prior to the intern’s employment, including projects to be accomplished and skills to be learned, interns can more appropriately distinguish which employers offer programs of real value and can better protect themselves against exploitation by comparing their experience to a physical agreement. These benchmarks will also give government regulators a much better method to measure employers’ compliance with federal law.

Universities that provide academic credit for internships have a responsibility to make unpaid internships more accessible to less privileged students. By directly providing need-based financial aid in the form of stipends instead of paying for credits that students might not need, schools can help lower income-based gaps in achievement and opportunity. Businesses’ cooperation in making their unpaid programs affordable would be helpful as well.

Government regulations must put the onus on employers to change the perception that they can get something for nothing out of interns, who get less than paid employees and are treated worse. Enhanced oversight of unpaid positions is essential if they are to be a resource of value to students rather than an empty resume filler. And low-income students must not be left behind.