Unpaid Internships: You Get What You Pay For

06/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Christie Garton Social entrepreneur, author and founder of the 1,000 Dreams Fund

College internships have long been a right of passage. For decades, college students around the country have given themselves over to an unspoken formula: pay your dues via mindless grunt work and long hours, and eventually your diligence and hard work (in the face of never-ending filing assignments and coffee fetching) would lead to the job of your dreams upon graduation.

But that's not quite the case anymore.

As the recession continues to drag down the U.S. economy, many students are finding themselves in the jobless ghetto of "pseudo" internships that are less about learning and more about filling in the employment gaps left by major layoffs. Even worse? Many of these internships offer little to no pay for their efforts.

Victoria Reitano, college student, recently wrote about her own experiences interning and some of the horror stories that she and her friends have lived to talk about.

"A friend of mine did at an [internship at an] unnamed morning show in New York City. The company required my friend to commute at 5:30 in the morning so that she would be there in time for shooting (my school is located in Connecticut, it takes about 2 hours to get to Manhattan), and then kept her until 8-9 at night, which meant she didn't get home until 11 or 12 a.m. and obviously didn't give her adequate time to prepare for her next full day of classes. She didn't get paid, she didn't get lunch (well, she was a courier for their lunch, so I guess in a way she did "get" lunch) and she didn't learn anything that would be valuable for her career," Reitano writes.

Unfortunately, this story has become all too common, so much so that the U.S. Department of Labor recently announced measures to crack down on for-profit companies that employ interns without the benefit of salary. Certainly, the argument could be raised that learning on the job has its own value and will eventually pay-off. But when? With 40% fewer job prospects available to new college graduates and reports that indicate 16-19 year-olds are being hit hardest by recession , it's become a lose-lose proposition for both students AND the companies that employ them free of charge. How so? When interns are expected to take on professional tasks far above their pay grade (if they're getting paid) leads to overworked subordinates producing marginal work product that, in the end, could hurt the company's bottom line.

While the jury still remains out as to whether or not these new governmental reforms will dramatically change the way corporations recruit and hire college talent, there does appear to be some hope for college students on the horizon. Two weeks ago, Atlantic Media (parent company to The Atlantic and The Journal) was one of the first companies to announce that they were radically rethinking their current internship program. What are they proposing? "Yesterday, we decided to pay, retroactively, both last year's interns and our current class. We convened our current interns this morning to tell them the news. Some messages are easier to deliver than others. Telling them they would be paid was on the easier side," the company said in a statement.

Whether or not other companies decide to follow suit, the take-away message remains clear: You get what you pay for.

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