In this economy, Millennials do not have the option of being picky. In college, we dreamt of 6-figure salaries, or starting a thriving business, or taking our time to build our pet projects. However, idyllic as we pictured our post-graduate lives being, the realities of life, of course, hit us hard. Unemployment for recent graduates is at 12.7% as of July 2012.
But even the harshest pessimist likely could not have foreseen the most opportunistic and desperate of realities: unpaid internships.
It’s been explained to us in ostensible terms: if you work for a company for free, you get a foot in the door. This can be true, sometimes. A dozen or so years ago, unpaid internships were not uncommon in the arts, but they have spread out into the industries of business, law, and journalism, even before the Great Recession hit in 2008.
Unpaid internships prey on a very common-sense theme: Experience trumps education. Our educational system does not value hands-on experience, so when the newly-matriculated graduate is loosed upon the world with tens of thousands of dollars in loans to repay and debt to refund, the question becomes: how can we possibly break into the industries we’ve thought about entering with only a $140,000 piece of paper that nearly everyone else has?
Sometimes, these unpaid internships do indeed lead you to where you want to go. Other times, they lead to desperation and despair. We hear from our peers how they are forced to do menial labor; the labor that paid workers refuse to do. Grabbing lunches; making photocopies; cleaning offices; making coffee; answering tedious phone calls. Some have worked over forty hours a week (some much more).
How did so many businesses get kids to work for free?
Historically speaking, we need to go back nearly 80 years in order to find the law that allows for something like this. In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, and it laid out a 6-point test, still in use today, for hiring unpaid interns:
1. The internship must be similar to training that would be given in an educational environment;
2. The internship must be for the benefit of the intern;
3. The intern does not displace regular employees;
4. The employer derives no immediate advantage from the intern;
5. The intern is not entitled to a job at the end of the internship; and
6. The intern understands that he or she is not entitled to wages.
If followed to the letter, this would be acceptable. The first point is a bit unreasonable nowadays, and the second and fourth points might be a little naïve to expect, but otherwise, they are not without merit. But how many unpaid internships do you know that follow these six steps? These steps are more in line with apprenticeships, which are very nearly anathema in the United States at this present time, except for in the vocational areas of electrical work, plumbing, and the like.
It is common knowledge in many industries that recent college graduates who are taking unpaid internships are going to work hard to get noticed. If they’ve taken the initiative to take something without pay just to be in an industry, then they will take an unreasonable amount of degradation before getting fed up.
Take the case of two unpaid interns vs. the movie industry. Two men filed suit against Fox Searchlight, stating that, in direct violation of the 6-point test from earlier: “Fox Searchlight acted illegally, the lawsuit asserts, because the company did not meet the federal labor department’s criteria for unpaid internships. Those criteria require that the position benefit the intern, that the intern not displace regular employees, that the training received be similar to what would be given in an educational institution and that the employer derive no immediate advantage from the intern’s activities.”
Recently, Fox stated that they have changed their policy to ensure that no interns are paid less than $8 an hour. The two men have since expanded the lawsuit to include all internships under the parent company of Twentieth Century Fox. That case is ongoing.
That is just one example of the situation we’re dealing with. Of course businesses would love to get free labor; it helps keeps costs manageable. And recent graduates are so desperate that they are willing to take these marginal ‘jobs’ just to attempt some sort of forward momentum. However, this does not take into account the vast number of students who come from lower-class families and harder situations who can’t afford to take an unpaid internship in a big city. It puts them at a distinct disadvantage.
There are positives to unpaid internships, of course. Other than the fact it can actually get you a foot in the door, and resume experience, the big seller is that it ‘builds character.’ While this is something you will hear from people who have apparently already gone through their character building years, there is a kernel of truth to it. Only through friction can fire start, and only through adversity can we learn perseverance. However, it can easily be argued that these lessons can be learned with some pay as well.
This is not a progressive vs. conservative issue; it’s a moral issue. It lends itself to the greater problem of a regressing economy, and the lengths which some employers are willing to go to meet their bottom line. This should be concerning to authorities and to business in general. The market that allows for this sort of desperation will beget more desperation.
Before any laws are changed, or any trends dissipate, it is incumbent on any matriculating or recently matriculated college graduate to look very closely at their opportunities in the job market, and take care to discover whether or not any internships being considered are fair and/or worthwhile.
Eventually, the world economy will gradually get better, but it will also evolve, as all economies do. Will it involve rampant unpaid work for college graduates? Or will involve young people being able to make a fair wage? Millennials have to decide.