Millennials: To intern or not to intern?

Mitch Kohl

Students, recent graduates, and even some young unemployed folks are taking the summer to focus on work related experience. These experiences are generally in the form of internships, career sampling, and job shadows. Mostly, these experiences are unpaid.

Over the last decade, internships and unpaid work experiences for college students and graduates have spread through the U.S. According to the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/03/business/03intern.html, many states are investigating employers who offer these unpaid experiences.

Millennials are anxious to advance to the next stage of their careers and understand that an unpaid opportunity may be the best (read: only) way to get our foot in the door. But what happens if the unpaid experience is unethical, unfair, or downright illegal? Does this generation even know what to do if they find themselves stuck in an illegal internship?

Unpaid experiences are supposed to benefit the trainee—and the trainee only. While many millennials may find themselves in an illegal unpaid training opportunity, they may never speak up because they fear its career suicide to raise awareness about the situation. It is not.

Internships.com defines an internship as “any official or formal program to provide practical experience for beginners in an occupation or profession.” As more and more businesses try to cut costs by hiring young individuals for unpaid positions, it becomes a question of whether or not the opportunity is really practical, formal, or beneficial to a profession at all.

According to The New York Times article, federal and state regulators are cracking down on companies who exploit the unpaid internship and abuse it as an opportunity to simply hire an unpaid labor force. Although it is sometimes difficult to know the difference between a legal and illegal unpaid job experience, The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD)  http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.htm lists six factors to determine whether the unpaid opportunity should be treated as a paid employee position or if it is educational training found to be ethical, legitimate, and legal.

Federal and state officials are trying to help create only positive, beneficial opportunities in an ethical business world. If you feel like you’re being taken advantage of, talk with the supervisor of the intern program, the school officials if your opportunity is provided through your school, or talk to the head of the HR department at the company regarding your concerns.

As millennials, we’re willing to do the work and go the unpaid route, when necessary. But let’s not forget: We’re young. We have integrity. We have standards. And we have respect for ourselves.

Why would we be willing to throw that all out the window if we haven’t even got our foot in the door?

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