Is wage-free work worth your time?

Some companies illegally use unpaid internships to employ free but essential laborers.

by Jenna Beyer

Our generation is a busy one. Stuck between the baby boomer generationâÄôs mantra of stability and a working world increasingly unreceptive to a bachelorâÄôs degree, the future of any graduate is uncertain. Though IâÄôm ready to be done with college for a while, IâÄôm secretly holding on to the predictability of collegiate life until my undergraduate career breathes its last breath. In many ways, internships seem to be our saving grace and are readily available in a recession. They provide hands-on experience in the field, a chance to beef up a résumé or even get a job offer. Internships have become an expected part of oneâÄôs undergraduate education. But who benefits the most from unpaid internships? A recent New York Times article reported that the Department of Labor is investigating employers that may be breaking minimum wage laws by putting unpaid interns to work in place of employees. Using six criteria, the DOL defines unpaid interns as âÄúunemployed workersâÄù who do not displace regular employees. Interns, technically, do not perform crucial business tasks but merely work with employers to gain knowledge and to do work to their individual benefit. If these boundaries are broken, the employer is required to pay the intern for said work. One case the article cited resulted in $3,350 in back pay to two former unpaid interns at a solar panel company in Oregon. Internships are on the rise: Stanford UniversityâÄôs listing of unpaid intern positions has more than tripled in the last three years, according to the New York Times article. ItâÄôs hard to imagine that all employers follow the law when interns often donâÄôt know their rights as âÄúunpaid workersâÄù or are afraid to speak up with their futures on the line. Popular depictions of interns only fuel the fire, making it seem acceptable that their job is to maintain work environments and caffeine levels for everybody else. Sweep the floor? Sure. Stuff envelopes all day? You got it! Just glad to be here. This attitude is what allows unrewarding environments to persist. That Hollywood image of the latte-carrying, errand-running, eager college graduate might be the most realistic depiction of the unpaid intern, but itâÄôs not legal. This is especially true in the publishing field. By the time Jamie Millard graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in English, she was a seasoned intern with Alive Magazine, a local publication dedicated to creating opportunities for women. An entrepreneur who has had five unpaid internships, Millard says the operations of Alive Arts Media, the nonprofit behind the magazine, depended entirely on its 10 interns and only two paid employees. âÄúI wrote 20 grant proposals and asked for over $400,000 in sought funds. What I was doing was very crucial to their operations,âÄù Millard said. Millard and another intern, Nicolle Westlund, were both offered jobs with Alive at the end of their internships. âÄúThe job description,âÄù Millard said, âÄúwas exactly the same as what I was already doing. And it was unpaid.âÄù âÄúThey have good intentions,âÄù Millard said. âÄúAlive gave me a lot of experience, but at what cost âÄî literally? I have been taken advantage of. I donâÄôt feel like my services are worth value. I donâÄôt feel like I can ask for money, even though I know I deserve it.âÄù Westlund said she knows she was doing work integral to AliveâÄôs functioning âÄî including writing, editing and designing the entire publication âÄî but she bears no grudges. âÄúI look at it as one of the best internships IâÄôve had because of the experience I was given,âÄù she said. âÄúIt landed me my first publishing job.âÄù Professional experience certainly expands future career options, but unpaid internships donâÄôt pay the bills, nor is the work always easy. To me, IâÄôd rather keep my sanity, but many, like Westlund, feel there are no other options. In reality, there are quite a few. What if, post-graduation, one instead put time and energy into something else âÄî a personal project, short story, blog or even a trade? Or what if one dedicated the time to finding similar, but compensated, work? The Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs is a campus organization that shapes study programs for students who want to gain experience while improving their community. Emily Jane Seru, manager of internships and community partnerships for HECUA, said that while administrative tasks are expected in any organization, they ask organizations to keep them below 20 percent. Seru and Paul Timmins, career services director for the Career and Community Learning Center on campus, both said the best way to avoid landing in an internship that is unrewarding or illegal is to ask solid questions about job duties and thoroughly evaluate employers. When counseling or teaching students, Timmins promotes LinkedIn, a social networking site for professional connections, along with a theory called âÄúplanned happenstance.âÄù Coined by John D. Krumboltz, âÄúplanned happenstanceâÄù encourages curiosity and flexibility in career seekers who, Krumboltz says, are more likely to be offered opportunities simply by being present in diverse social situations. According to the theory, those with diverse interests and experiences are more likely to come across fulfilling opportunities than those who plan every detail of the future. Whether any Twin Cities businesses come under fire for wage violations remains to be seen. In the meantime, donâÄôt work without pay unless other options fail and donâÄôt trust that federal guidelines will protect you from modern wage slavery. Seek real opportunities, be aggressive when you find them and remember everything canâÄôt be predicted. Good opportunities come in many forms, often out of happenstance and old-fashioned self motivation. Jenna Beyer welcomes comments at [email protected]