Monica Lewinsky: Unpaid intern

Joe Gagliano · June 18, 2010 · Short URL:

Navigating the paid vs. unpaid internship debate

The debate over paid vs. unpaid internships has received national attention.

We’ve heard from nearly everyone – start-up executives, leery entrepreneurs, employer associations, career center professionals, students, parents and media. We’ve even received anonymous emails from people upset because we don’t insist that every post on YouTern, which just launched last month, be a paid position (perhaps they didn’t read our ‘Intern Law 101’ post).

Despite the passion, federal “laws” are the problem.

We have laws – universally ignored – that govern speed limits. Laws exist to keep people from smoking near the entrance of office buildings;  everyone knows how well that works.

We supposedly have federal “laws” (guidelines, really) that protect interns. However, these antiquated rules refer only to “employees” vs. “trainees”; the word “intern” is not even mentioned. By default, interns have fallen into the trainee category. Far too open to interpretation, many would consider enforcement of these laws as non-existent – at least until a recent New York Times article placed an intense spotlight on the subject.

Compliance is not complicated.

To entrepreneurs with plenty on their to-do lists already, compliance can be a concern… until you know the facts:

  • It is quite easy to comply with the “guidelines” surrounding internships; just about every single company navigates without a worry
  • Project and stipend-based internships are a great way to quiet concern about hourly wages
  • Companies that have less than $500,000 in revenue are not subject to the FSLA (but are, of course, responsible for complying with minimum wage laws)

Saviors or Hypocrites?

In this debate, the US Department of Labor (DOL) is referred to as either the savior of interns everywhere – or as a bit hypocritical. Both sides agree the DOL is a complaint-driven entity; only the most egregious offenders are ever confronted for not abiding by the Fair Labor Standards Act. Everyone realizes there are no “Intern Investigators” walking the beat on Main Street, Wall Street, or even Pennsylvania Avenue.

Yes, Monica Lewinsky was an unpaid intern.

Reacting to the New York Times article, the DOL received severe criticism for failing to look in the mirror, or even down the hall. Literally, thousands of unpaid interns work for the federal government every year – including on Capitol Hill and in the White House.

States pick up the slack.

Much to the relief of entrepreneurs wary of stepping on the wrong side of the proverbial line in the sand, many at the state level are stepping up. Oregon, California and others are working toward enforceable laws, proportional consequences and consistent enforcement practices. In a “manage up” practice, those states are acknowledging the need for a much more solid and relevant legal foundation from which to appropriately address intern-related workplace issues.

Business is held responsible for a quality intern experience.

Good companies, and particularly entrepreneur executives at start-ups and SMEs, know they’re ultimately held responsible for a positive intern experience. Most acknowledge that paying interns is the right thing to do. They also realize that should something go wrong, one intern can severely tarnish their company reputation through viral means.

However, there are some industries (fashion, design and, yes, government) where unpaid internships have been the norm for decades. And we at YouTern acknowledge that in some cases an unpaid internship works out best for both the resources-strained business and the intern eager for a resume marker in an ultra-competitive job market.

Compensation is not the only issue.

To both sides of this debate, we would like to point out that compensation is just one factor in a quality internship experience.

Businesses: Interns are your single best resource for expanding your in-house experience set, and in some cases your bandwidth. Ensure a productive experience by becoming an enthusiastic mentor. Manage in the “golden rule” style, keeping in mind that the days of “coffee and copy” internships are behind us.

Intern Candidates: Get involved; become part of the team. Remember, an internship is a genuine opportunity to excel – and that nearly 70% of internships, paid or unpaid, result in an employment offer (NACE, June 2009). Also remember that compensation (hourly, project or stipend) is now considered standard and that maybe 20% of your time should be spent doing “grunt” work; we all have to start somewhere.

Internships, by definition, are a learning experience. We’re all responsible for making sure that experience is positive – and sets the stage for a productive, creative career.

Now, let the Monica Lewinsky jokes begin (again).

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YouTern connects college students and graduates with entrepreneurial-driven companies through internships in highly motivated, creative work environments. By merging traditional recruiting knowledge with Web 2.0 technologies, YouTern ensures that those entering today’s competitive workforce will gain an edge through essential career experience. At the same time, YouTern provides the start-up community with exceptional, passionate talent.