Earlier this month, the New York Times featured a few articles focused on internships and whether they are truly valuable for the intern or just a disguise for companies to exploit workers and capitalize on "free labor."
In one article, Ross Perlin, a researcher for the Himalayan Languages Project in southwest China and author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy , suggests that "the labor of unpaid interns has quietly replaced or displaced untold thousands of workers." Perlin goes on to say that "the well-intentioned, structured, paid training experience of yesteryear is increasingly giving way to an unpaid labor racket". The discussion surrounding internships is very relevant to me as I look to staff my growing recruiting business. I find that much of my daily activity cannot be outsourced, nor am I willing to outsource. Much of my work involves directly sourcing candidates for particular positions or conferring with clients on exactly what they are looking for in their next employee; I feel my background in the electronics industry sets me apart from many recruiters. It would be difficult for me to "teach" an intern the nuances of the electronics business in a single semester. However, I recognize a need for a greater social media presence for JJM Search, which could be well-executed by an intern, specifically someone from Generation Y, where social media is second nature.
I recently hired (yes, hired!) an intern from a local liberal arts university. Lauren is a senior (a business marketing/management major) and has already brought a wealth of energy and fresh perspective to my business. Lauren is focusing on all aspects of social media including establishing the company's Facebook presence, enhancing the LinkedIn site, creating a YouTube company video, and developing an improved and fully-linked Website at www.jjmsearch.com.
The internship is virtual, except for occasional lunch meetings to fill in the blanks from our weekly calls and to get out of the office or off campus! The stipend that Lauren earns probably isn't enough to make a dent in her student loans but is based on approximate hours of work and equal to what she would get working part-time locally. Lauren says she would have taken the internship even without a stipend, as the work experience is valuable for her as she looks to enter the job market permanently in May. Not to mention the connections this internship provides.
I am a firm believer in internships. I had several during my college days -- some paid, some unpaid -- and all provided a wealth of experience. In some cases, the experience helped in highlighting careers I didn't want to pursue. Perlin, in his article, concludes that "ultimately, the government has a fundamental responsibility for ensuring that the labor market remains a level playing field and that America continues to be a land of opportunity. The law has said for decades that unpaid work, with few exceptions, is illegal. It is time to enforce the law."
I'm sorry, but I wholeheartedly disagree that the government needs to step in and eliminate unpaid internships. I believe internships (paid or unpaid) can bring tremendous value to an intern, and, ultimately, to his or her future employers.