Hillsdale College graduate Katy Bachelder has a piece in the Wall Street Journal arguing against a recent court ruling that found firms must pay their student interns, otherwise they are engaging in unfair business practices:
According to the fact sheet, an unpaid internship is legal if it provides training similar to that found in an “educational environment”; exists to benefit the intern; does not displace staff; gives an employer “no immediate advantage”; doesn’t guarantee a job; and includes an explicit agreement about compensation.
That’s quite a list.
…All of this legal wrangling reflects a larger “intern advocate” movement campaigning for “fair pay.” Yet the movement’s most natural allies—proponents of a higher minimum wage—find themselves in an awkward spot. The Obama administration supports a minimum-wage hike, for instance, but the White House doesn’t pay its interns.
Luckily for the administration, the Department of Labor guidelines grant an exemption for “public service” internships. The pro-minimum-wage Center for American Progress pays its interns a $150 weekly stipend (plus a Metro pass, according to an intern I spoke with), which works out to well below minimum wage for an average work week.
Good for the White House and the Center for American Progress. They recognize the value of internships. Let’s not be disingenuous: These positions are not entitlements. An internship presents an opportunity to build what writer Cal Newport calls “career capital” in his 2012 book about career-building, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.”
Internships are an investment of time and labor to reach a desired end. When only 11% of human-resources administrators rated the millennial generation as “hard working,” according to a recent survey by career network Beyond.com, an internship is also a chance to show a little hustle.
The primary value of an internship isn’t the small amount of money that even the paid positions offer. It’s to help students land a job when 80% of hires happen through networking, according to a 2012 ABC News report. Most companies and organizations are careful to make sure that internships go to young people from diverse backgrounds—providing networking opportunities that were once available strictly to the offspring of the well-connected.
According to an April Reuters poll, nearly 40% of college graduates are underemployed, working in positions that don’t require a bachelor’s degree and often struggling to pay off student loans. So “intern advocates” ought to be advocating for more internships—unpaid or barely paid. Inviting judges and lawmakers to overhaul a well-functioning system in pursuit of a perfect one, and risking its undoing, does no favors to college-age kids. My Washington internship not only taught me about the Capitol tunnel system, it also better prepared me to face the labyrinth of an adult working life.