We’ve all heard the term “gofer”. Seeing interns being used to “go for coffee”, or used for other meaningless tasks, has rapidly become a stereotype in modern situations and office humor. Stephen Colbert ran gags about internships, comparing them to slave labor and calling it an American tradition. So for all the mocking we subject interns to, why are we also still being told that these are good positions for us enhance our resumes?
According to Ross Perlin’s “Intern Nation”, unpaid internships in the United States are growing at an exponential rate. Framed as a way for students to get a leg up on the job market over their peers, these positions claim to offer invaluable experience in lieu of pay. We at RIT have been lucky to have a co-op program steering us away from these “jobs”. They’re often advertised as great learning experiences, and a way to get companies on your resume without competing for one of a few open jobs or co-ops. But in reality, most unpaid internships are downright illegal.
For an internship to be both unpaid and legal, there are six criteria that it must pass. Most of these are relatively simple, like the intern being aware of the position being unpaid, or the internship being for the intern’s benefit (when wouldn’t it?). One of these conditions is particularly tricky, because it calls into question why unpaid internships would even exist in the first place.
The fourth listed criteria for unpaid internships, according to U.S. Department of Labor documents, states that, “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.” Obviously, this exists to make sure that interns aren’t being used to do work actually important to the company for free, but that’s exactly what happens. Companies gain nothing from handing out experience, so they try to game these jobs in their favor.
If you don’t get anything besides light experience, they shouldn’t get much out of it either. But what’s that experience worth if nothing done there helped anything? What company is going to invent trivial work for you to do, and them to never use? It seems more detrimental to the company to create menial work for interns than to just pay them a small wage. Or, easier on the company still, give you work they actually need done, and not pay you a dime for it.
Here’s where everything you’ve ever heard about these internships fall apart. The only thing that it proves you can do is handle irrelevant, meaningless tasks. Sure, it shows that you’re good enough to hold down a job for a few months. But that’s only a small part of the problem: Apart from the immediate detriments to us, these positions give many companies the impression that they’ve no need to pay for entry level labor.
On top of all this, these “opportunities” are incredibly restricted. When these jobs do manage to offer any advantage to a student, the advantages are only really present for students from wealthier families. Not many of us have the means to work a quarter or more with no income, without falling back onto our families. The cost of moving and housing alone practically eliminates even the thought of a middle or lower class student taking an unpaid position.
Any skill we bring to the table has a value, and companies should not be taking advantage of inexperience to further their own profits. These companies won’t change by themselves, so it’s something we need to take into our own hands. If you’ve worked one and not been paid, have a talk with that employer. If you ever get offered one, remember that your labor is worth something, no matter what you’re told.
While we are slightly insulated from the surge of unpaid internships here at RIT, it’s my hope that the trend dies down, and quickly. Our co-op office has done a good job of enabling us to get paid experience, and it’d be a terrible thing to see unpaid positions worm their way into RIT.