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Who wants to work for free?

The reality of unpaid, and even paid, internships

By Caleb Brown
On May 4, 2011

 Each year, hundreds of students line up to see if they can land an internship. For some, it is required while others are just after the experience. Whatever the case may be, anyone would rather be paid than work for free. Nevertheless, each year many students end up doing just that. The first thought that comes to mind is that this is not fair, and further more, how can it be legal?

In recent years the U.S. Department of Labor has done a bit of cracking down on how employers use unpaid interns. Fact Sheet #71 (issued April 2010) listed six criteria for the employment of interns in unpaid positions. Two criteria stand out.

Number three in the list states that, "The intern does not displace regular employees..." At first glance this may seem to be aimed at protecting paid employees, and it is, but it also ensures that an intern isn't doing a full time job for free.

Continuing this idea is that the training should provide "no immediate advantage" to the employer.

"That's where it gets really gray," said Tim Tritch, the Associate Director of Career Services here at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse. The interpretation of immediate advantage could depend largely on the employer.

And at any rate, according to Tritch, his office is not concerned with policing employers for this.  After all, their mission statement explicitly says, "Our goal is to help students choose a meaningful career that reflects their values, interests and abilities," regardless if it is an internship experience or a permanent position.

Despite the fact that unpaid internships may seem overly prevalent, this is not always an issue. The truth is, most internships, at least those that go through Career Services, are paid.

According to Career Services' 2009-2010 annual report, 60% of the internships they processed were for a salary in some form or another.

Tritch also said, "We make the pitch for paid positions." He said that his office tries to work with what the student needs. If they can get you a paid internship they will, but, "Most programs we [Career Services] work with are optional experiences," said Tritch.

Point being that even if the students are not getting paid, they chose to participate in the program. It is not as though they necessarily have to work for free.

Outside of the UW-L Career Services office, it is quite a different story. Many majors do require some sort of internship in order to graduate. These work study programs may be called different things but it still boils down to the student gaining a portion of their education in a real life work environment. For some of these programs the students cannot be paid.

In some cases, the accrediting authority, the board that decides what is required to get your degree in a particular field of study, disallows pay to students if the work is to count for credit. And this is the case with some of the health professions, among other departments on campus. But that's not to say this goes for all majors.  All of this varies, of course, depending on which department a student is in.

Internships can be a great opportunity to gain experience in a field you are interested in. Even better if you can get into one that pays. Either way, just keep in mind, everyone has to start somewhere.


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