Monday, February 6, 2012

Unpaid Internships: Good, Bad, or Downright Ugly?

As somebody who has participated in not just unpaid internships, but internships where I actually paid my school tuitition in order to receive credit,  Sunday's New York Times "Room For Debate" piece about Unpaid Internships struck a cord.
I have mixed feelings on the issue of unpaid internships. On the one hand I recognize the value of unpaid internships - particularly those that are with government or non-profit organizations who can not only provide valuable training for interns but who can utilize interns in serving the public interest because resources are scarce (To me, for-profit companies should be prohibited from offering unpaid internships - there is no excuse for them benefiting for free from the work of unpaid interns). My internships were incredible experiences and I am tremendously grateful for having had the opportunity. Strictly speaking they met all the US Department of Labor requirements for an unpaid internship to be legal. Both internships were overseas and I participated in substantive work that lead to real legal training as opposed to menial tasks like making coffee and photocopies.
I recognize that not everyone will be as fortunate as I was and that being able to take advantage of internship opportunities requires having sufficient financial support (or in my case, ability to take out student loans). It is incredibly disheartening that an unpaid internship seems de rigueur for obtaining any sort of employment because it means many who do not have the financial means will miss out and it increases student debt and it places young twenty-somethings further behind in their quest for financial independence and stability.
Many of the contributors to the NYT debate point out the necessity of having the Department of Labor be a better agency of enforcement against illegal internships and I agree that this is necessary. But I think the contributors missed an additional solution to the problem. Remove a year from traditional classroom education and replace it with an apprenticeship program but don't require students to pay full tuition to their schools in order to do so. It would be even better if the apprenticeship programs paid some nominal amount (much like the residency programs for those seeking medical degrees - they don't receive a full salary but they are no longer paying for their education and they can at least live modestly off their salaries). This would provide more new grads (whether undergraduate or graduate) with practical experience but would not add to their already substantial student debt. It would be especially beneficial in leveling the playing field between those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds because nobody would be prohibited from gaining experience on account of their inability to afford to work for free.
 Both of my internships, while incredibly beneficial, imposed a substantial financial burden and not just because I was not paid. In addition to receiving no remuneration, I paid my school approximately $20,000 in tuition for one semester and one summer of credit. In reality I received no value from the school other than the fact that grades were entered into my transcript and I had to write a paper with supervision by a professor. At most I should have paid an "administration fee" or for the credits related to the paper alone but I should not have been required to pay tuition for the credits which stemmed directly from the internships. If law schools (and not just law schools, but any secondary or post-secondary education program) reduced the amount of schooling required and replaced it with a requirement for a year-long apprenticeship entry-level professionals would be better equipped for practice and less burdened by debt.

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