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Just as students and employers began to finalize summer plans last spring, the New York Times decided to burst their bubbles. In April, the Times ran a piece suggesting that many unpaid internships at for-profit companies may be illegal. Now that students have settled into summer pursuits that are hopefully both enriching and lawful, we wanted to consider the topic of unpaid internships and how they can be better regulated.

As the article explains, the issues surrounding unpaid internships are trickier than one might expect. On the one hand, unpaid interns distort the normal functioning of the labor market and could displace paid employees. Further, employers may dangle the possibility of future employment in order to exploit student workers.

At the same time, internships are often valuable educational experiences that yield economic benefits in the long term. Government and businesses alike have an interest in promoting hands-on learning in the workplace.

An even more fundamental, egalitarian concern underlies the entire debate: Only some students are able to forgo the opportunity to earn money during the summer.

Unfortunately, the current regulations make little effort to balance all these very legitimate points. Instead, they stringently limit the student's workplace activities, barring interns from performing "the routine work of the businesses" and mandating that the employer "derives no immediate advantage" from the presence of the intern.

The result, as the president of Northeastern University recently noted, is that many internships are robbed of the "experiential learning" element that makes them valuable. And as one Labor Department official told the Times, there "aren't going to be many circumstances" in which unpaid internships are legal.

The main problem with the current set of rules is that it fails to carve out any unique legal status for interns. Rather, the rules imply that companies have only two acceptable options: Allow students to observe for free or hire them as regular employees subject to normal wage and overtime requirements.

We propose a new middle ground that more effectively accounts for the competing interests. Under a new legal status, interns could be exempt from some of the standard labor requirements but would have to be paid at least a stipend for housing and transportation. This change will give employers clarity and allow them to offer students opportunities without incurring the full burden of hiring a young inexperienced worker. A stipend minimum would also help ease worries that unpaid internships are only realistic options for the wealthiest students.

Existing regulations also prohibit employers from using unpaid internships as a "trial period for individuals seeking employment." But interns will inevitably wonder about their eventual job prospects, and companies will undoubtedly want to attract talented individuals who might one day become productive employees.

Rather than treat the possibility of future employment as a taboo subject, businesses should have to be more transparent about interns' chances of landing a paid position. In particular, regulations should encourage companies to disclose how many previous interns were offered full-time jobs.

The Times piece tells several horror stories about employer abuses, but notes that students may be silent for fear of losing out on a future job offer. The current regulations do not offer much protection — students treated unfairly may have been working illegally in the first place. Luckily for Brown students, the Career Development Center's online Summer Experience Database can be a place to vent. Until the current approach to regulating internships can be improved, we encourage students to log on and speak up.

Editorials are written by The Herald's editorial page board. Send comments to editorials (at) browndailyherald.com.

 

 


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