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Working for Free: The Boom in Adult Interns

5 minute read
Eve Tahmincioglu

When you hear the word intern , you probably don’t think of people like Kristina Shands. For starters, she’s 38. And she had notched 10 years of experience as a fundraiser at a nonprofit in Tennessee before she was laid off last year. But now that Shands is considering moving into sports management, she’s interning with the Knoxville Ice Bears hockey team, writing game summaries and handing out stats on game day. She devotes about 10 hours a week to the Bears, and she does it for free. “I’m getting to see the inner workings of a professional hockey team, learning about the business side of sports, and I get to watch hockey,” Shands says. “I’m having fun.”

Unpaid internships have long been a mainstay for students who get academic credit in lieu of a paycheck. But in the Great Recession, with the unemployment rate hovering near 10%, job-search sites like CareerBuilder and Monster.com are reporting increases in the number of postings for internships. And more and more college graduates and even middle-aged professionals are willing to work for free in hopes that it will help them land a paying gig.

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“You know the old Depression-era signs, ‘I’ll work for food?,’ ” asks Philadelphia workplace attorney Robin Bond. “Well, now they say, ‘I’ll work for free.'” Bond says she has heard from a growing number of unemployed professionals looking to volunteer for corporations because they don’t want gaps in their résumé.

Companies are often eager for the extra set of hands. Michael Schmidt, an employment attorney in New York City, has seen an uptick in recent months in private employers calling him to find out if they can bring in unpaid interns as a way to cut costs. His answer: volunteering at for-profit companies is, legally, a no-no. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has spelled out several criteria with the goal of ensuring that internships not only provide real training but also can’t be used by companies to displace regular employees.

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“It can be very tempting if you’re laying off employees to bring in free help and call it an internship,” says John Kniering, director of career services for the University of Hartford. “But most career-services operations are fairly sophisticated in weeding those out.”

The DOL regularly does outreach with colleges to help protect the rights of students. But what about older interns, many of whom graduated years ago? “That’s not the typical scenario that’s been on our radar screen,” says Nancy Leppink, the DOL’s wage and hour deputy administrator. “The fact of the matter is, the legal requirements aren’t any different.”

Of course, there’s little incentive for employers or interns to blow the whistle, says Robert Trumble, a management professor and the director of the Virginia Labor Studies Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. Workers want experience and the connections that come along with it.

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“It was not free labor,” Grant Harris says of the 16-week internship he completed this winter with A Tailored Suit, which makes custom clothing for men. The 26-year-old, who lives in Leesburg, Va., and has an MBA, spent about 10 hours a week doing tasks like writing articles for the company’s fashion guide, and he credits the owner with helping him launch his business as a style consultant. “I did it for the experience, and that’s what I got,” Harris says.

The perceived value of that kind of experience helps explain why there’s little organized resistance to unpaid internships in the U.S. These jobs have become such a widely acknowledged stepping stone to employment that in late March, the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank in Washington, proposed the creation of a federal program that would give stipends to low-income students who take unpaid internships in public service, which the government defines as work at nonprofits and government agencies.

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In the U.K., however, the rising use of unpaid internships has recently garnered headlines for perpetuating inequality between those who can afford to work for free and those who cannot. The country’s largest union federation, Trades Union Congress, launched rightsforinterns.org.uk in late March to help get the word out that internships that offer no real training are exploitative — and illegal. So far, more than 2,500 people have joined a Facebook group that a British student started called Interns Must Be Paid the Minimum Wage.

Will labor activists in the U.S. ever get the intern genie back in the bottle? Not if enough people keep volunteering to work for free. Marian Schembari quit her unpaid internship at a Web-based publisher in New York City after three months of living with her parents. The 22-year-old, who graduated from college last year, reached the point where she felt that working 40-hour weeks for no pay was “degrading.” But Schembari, who is now freelancing, still thinks she got something valuable out of the internship. “I was able to write for a website with a decent readership, and I built up my clips,” she says. “My bosses were nice. They just couldn’t afford to pay. But in hindsight, that really shouldn’t be my problem.”

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