Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Musings on the State of the Intern.

Media commentary on the internship environment continues. and the NYTimes recently posted articles essentially lamenting the fact that job-seekers, facing one of the toughest job markets in history, are now having trouble landing internships at big corporations. Some folks are actually paying their way into high profile internships. Even Lady Gaga wants to intern, so you know the competition is fierce.

You have to wonder, why the change? For one thing, there continues to be talk about the Department of Labor's evolving policies on what constitutes an unpaid internship. As we’ve written in the past, some of these factors include whether the training the intern receives is similar to training that can be obtained in an educational setting, whether the unpaid interns will displace a paid employee, and whether the employer goes so far as to derive any “benefit” from the intern’s work.

In an effort to fulfill these sometimes onerous criteria, many employers go as far as navigating the work study rules of various academic institutions and offering to provide academic credit for their positions. But sometimes, they’re still out of luck, as many students don’t need the credit, or for other bureaucratic reasons, wouldn’t qualify for it. Further, this would limit the applicant pool to only students! Who’s to say that recent graduates, young professionals and more experienced folks aren’t interested in internships as well? Much has been written, in fact, about “adult internships.”

Look, we’re business owners ourselves, and we carefully watch every expense. As we have written in the past, people should be appropriately compensated for their work. If they’re not, employers may have a tough time retaining them. Their costs to acquire talent could go up over a long period of time, as they continually need to find and train new people.

Alternatively, if you’re someone who can invest the time in educating, training and mentoring, then perhaps an unpaid intern is the right model for your business. And, now, in the worst recession in 80 years, is not the time to be decreasing businesses’ access to these workers.

Further, in the most competitive job market since the early 1980's, now is not the time to be decreasing the quality and quantity of opportunities for job-seekers to learn new skills, particularly when they are ready, willing, and able. This is not simply about the current class of 2010 finding a summer gig. This is about education and innovation. Many businesses, especially smaller organizations, can offer opportunities that, paid or unpaid, can enrich a job seeker by giving them the chance to learn new skills and develop experience that they can bring to new employers-– or their own endeavors! – on a full-time basis.

Those who argue in favor of cracking down on unpaid internships, we ask you this: what advice would you give to job seekers who can’t find a job and are now being told that, though they are willing, they can’t volunteer their time in exchange for meaningful experience? Spend more time on Facebook complaining with friends that there are no opportunities out there? Why should the proactive job seekers and businesses who are taking the time to open their doors be punished?

As we said above, we think that the business case falls out on the side of paying interns. But ultimately, we argue this decision should be left up to the employer and the candidate to come to mutually agreeable terms on on their own.

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