Internships: Drawing the Line Between Experience & Exploitation

Jul 18, 2013

Hundreds of students flock to this internship & job fair at Penn State University
Credit Penn State News / Flickr

Is scoring the ideal unpaid internship a boon or a financial burden for college students looking to break into the job market? A recent ruling by a New York court against Fox Searchlight Pictures over their misuse of interns has many questioning the value of doing unpaid work for credit or experience. And leaving employers wondering what sort of labor they can ask an intern to do.

According to Ben Bratman, an associate professor who specializes in employment law at the University of Pittsburgh Law School, what separates an unpaid internship from exploitation is the learning element. While making copies from time to time isn’t illegal, what some firms are guilty of is using interns “to replace what an employee would normally do.”

Bratman emphasizes that, even if an intern is willing to brew coffee and make copies all day for no pay, the internship remains illegal. Workers cannot waive the rights to a minimum wage, and thus the internship has to maintain some sort of educational aspect. Though some interns fall into this trap, most have an oft-forgotten ally on their side in their struggle for an educational experience, says Chris Miller, director of Career Development at Chatham University.

She says interns from Chatham form goals for their internship experience and the university monitors students to ensure that their employers pay attention to the learning side of things as well. Miller acknowledges that there is a certain advantage for wealthier students in the modern internship structure, as they may have the means to take full-time internships in more expensive cities without having to work an extra job. However, that doesn’t mean that those with less wealth should give up.

As Miller puts it, “The unpaid internship not only allows you to develop skills … it allows you to develop contacts” which will be extremely helpful down the road.