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Rallying behind the unpaid intern

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 8, 2010 - Every summer, many students and recent graduates work for free. Some accept unpaid internships begrudgingly. Others view them as a rite of passage. Still others turn down the jobs out of financial necessity.

Every spring, questions arise anew about whether employers are skirting their obligation to pay workers, even if they are technically trainees with little experience. This year, perhaps given the limited job options for young people, the cries seem to be louder that the unpaid internship has become far too common. 
A recent report from the Economic Policy Institute and the nonpartisan advocacy group Demos showed that the majority of internships at nonprofits and in government are unpaid, and it called for the establishment of a federal financial aid program to help low- and middle-income student pay for their unpaid public service internships.

The New York Times attracted a great deal of attention for a piece it ran last week on the growing number of unpaid internships for young people and the concern among federal and state regulators that more employers are illegally using these internships for free labor.

The issue is whether the unpaid internships violate minimum wage laws. Several states, along with the U.S. Department of Labor, have begun investigating employer practices, the article notes. Among the directives from the federal agency are that unpaid trainees shouldn't displace regular employees, and that the employer derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainee.

One problem is that interns, looking to put their best foot forward, are often hesitant to file complaints.

The internship has become a necessity for college graduates looking to show employers that they have experience in a given field. In 1992, just 9 percent of graduating college students had had internships; by 2006 that figure was above 80 percent, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Newsweek reports that students who can afford to work for free -– and often put up with the menial work -– tend to be well-positioned when the employer converts internships to full-time hires. And as Time notes, it’s not just college students taking these positions. Job-search sites are showing more postings for internships that are snatched up by people in their 30s or above who are seemingly overqualified.

When students and other job seekers are unable to afford a payless work experience, it vastly limits their employment opportunities down the line, the authors of the Economic Policy Institute report said.

Teresa Balestreri, director of career services at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said she hasn’t noticed an increase in the number of unpaid internships posted with her office. Nor has she seen a spike in students accepting such positions.

Most of the unpaid internships she comes across are in the nonprofit sector, which is “very diligent about making it a strong experience for the student,” Balestreri said in an e-mail.

She added that most of UMSL students are not in a position to accept an unpaid full-time job or internship after graduation, “as they are already working and it does not make fiscal sense.”

“However, among other strategies, we do encourage graduates to gain experience in their field of interest through community service if they are trying to increase their marketability in that field,” she said.