“Wanted: Nuclear Fusion Development Intern.” When internships are abused to acquire skills, not teach them.

Posted by on May 20, 2013

Internship SignOne of my former clients a few years ago managed internships for organizations. The firm’s job was to help companies, small and large, realize the mutual value of internships for both intern and employer. Instead of having them do traditional make-work like fetching coffee or copying documents, this company encouraged employers to utilize their college-level skills people and perform in-workflow tasks that’s more challenging and educational for them. At the same time, being more helpful and productive for the organization. A win/win.

But “Business development intern?”  Or a “mobile development intern” for a mobile company with no other developers? Those are real postings I’ve seen on job boards. Not all mind you, I’ve worked with clients who legitimately use internships to train or identify potential entry-level hires.

But just like this recent article about Internships from NPR or a recent court case where a fashion intern ended up suing over unfair labor practices points out, I see more and more businesses taking too much advantage of internships. Mutating this concept by having interns now doing jobs the organization: 1) can’t do but is critical to operations  2) doesn’t want to pay a lot for 3) and have the ability to quickly eject them after the work skills they valued are no longer needed.

When executed under the just-mentioned conditions with pay, this is illegal. Yes, The U.S. Department of Labor mandates that internships be for “the benefit of the intern,” and “works under close supervision of the existing staff.”

It’s a situation that is akin to college basketball. Players who can’t take money and perform a task critical to the organization’s very existence (can’t watch basketball without basketball players). Still, as vital as they are to the process, their role is considered training and development for their real job. All while the people around them earn their living directly from their unique training or skills.

If you don’t pay them, it’s legal.  But is it ethical? Are we using mere title to separate work from value?  And, if so, at what point do we reclassify Mexican field labor as immigrant internships?

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