Time to make a case for interns

Jared Rogers-Martin

While I was studying at a coffee shop, a man sat down next to me. His three-piece suit and smile suggested a career in sales.

But instead of selling a product, he actually interviewed a seemingly endless stream of students for an internship at College Works Painting. This company teaches students to run their own small painting businesses, all while some of the interns’ profits stay with College Works Painting.

My idea of an internship did not match the one that College Works was selling. Then again, I found myself against a wall trying to establish any concise definition of an internship.

It appears that the United States legal system shares my confusion. The only legal precedent on the definition of an internship comes from the 1947 Supreme Court case Walling v. Portland Terminal Co., in which the high court permitted a railway company’s trainee program because the trainees’ work did not necessarily “expedite the railroad’s business” and the internship program lasted only “seven or eight days.”

Unsurprisingly, internships look vastly different than they did six decades ago. Modern internships last much longer than a week — oftentimes exceeding six months in length.

Because there is no legal definition of “intern,” companies can be flexible as long as their internships follow a Department of Labor guideline stating that an internship must resemble “training which would be given in an educational environment.”

It’s time for our legal system to place more restrictions on what constitutes an internship. At the very least, it should give us a hard-and-fast minimum definition and some degree of legal protection for interns. Internship training is a classic model for learning the ropes of a workplace, but the modern system offers a dangerous vulnerability to exploitation.