Archive for May, 2010

Will work for… experience?

On a very deep level this column from John Stossel (no permalink, read it quick!) has struck a chord with me:

Do you employ unpaid student interns — college students who work in exchange for on-the-job training?

If so, President Obama’s Labor Department says that you’re an exploiter. The government says an internship is OK only if it meets six criteria, among them that the employer must get “no immediate advantage” from the intern’s activities.

My interns often told me that working — unpaid — at WCBS or ABC was the best learning experience of their lives: “I learned more from you than at college, and I didn’t have to pay tuition!” It was good for them and good for me.

The most offensively ignorant thing is the complete economic ignorance of the person who Stossel is debating:

But what’s wrong with a free internship if a student learns something about the career he wants to pursue?

I was a little stunned by Kamenetz’s answer: “Employers could say we cannot afford to pay anybody, so why should we be forced to pay the guy who cleans the floors?”

Of course, I don’t need to reprint his answer. It’s the first law of economics: people respond to incentives. Not all benefit from an internship or job is monetary.

But unpaid internships are a topic near and dear to my heart. When my one-semester high school internship at Raleigh Little Theatre ran out, I decided to keep going anyway. I wasn’t getting class credit for it anymore, but I was learning and, let’s be honest, getting a good workout!

However, I suspect that the only thing that would save me from willingly donating my time to the Theatre in this case would be the fact that they are structured as a volunteer organization. If I had been interning through the school at a for-profit business, I imagine I would have been turned away if I wanted to keep working, pro bono, because they would be legally required to pay me, which they couldn’t do.

But all of that is over and done with. However, my girlfriend is currently trying to break in to the commercial advertising business, which is a field that runs on internships. I’m not sure how many are paid or unpaid, but I surely know this: if ad firms stop being able to have unpaid interns, things are going to be much harder on her. She needs to have this experience to be credible when going for an interview for a full position at one of these agencies that she dreams about working at.

It’s a very rare and surreal experience to have the White House try and directly contravene something you would dearly love to do, but in this case, that’s exactly what’s happening. And I’m really not sure what we can do about it.

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