The elusive internship

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Summer time means internship time for many college students. Internships provide great on-the-job learning and access to contacts, giving students a valuable boost in the job market. However, in a world where having an internship before entering the real world is almost a must, obtaining one is becoming increasingly difficult, and paid internships are even rarer.

The recession has limited paid learning opportunities in Minnesota. Companies, such as Cargill, Toro and Target, have decreased their number of paid internships and/or increased unpaid internship positions. The rise in unpaid positions doesn’t sound too terrible. However,  the loss of paid internships is negatively affecting many students who don’t have the financial independence to take an unpaid position.

In addition to the recession, new laws regulating internships have exacerbated the loss of both paid and unpaid internships.  According to the Department of Labor’s (DOL) new guidelines – issued in April – a person may be considered an unpaid intern and not an employee if all of the following six criteria are met:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

Over all, these guidelines are there to protect the intern and prevent employers from abusing labor laws. Though they appear to be working, it is unfortunate that the results seem to cause more harm than help.

To stay within the new guidelines and avoid DOL penalties, many businesses have toughened up their qualifications for internships, such as requiring all interns to receive academic credit for the positions. Even the rise seen in unpaid internships could potentially start to drop due to the inability to meet the DOL’s criteria for being considered an unpaid intern. In extreme cases, some businesses are eliminating their internship programs all together. Of course, the main side effect is denying opportunities to recent college graduates and students.

Some blame the DOL’s strict rules. However,  people should instead focus on businesses.  It is because of some businesses’ internship practices that the guidelines were issued in the first place, and it is the fault of many businesses for the shrinking amount of DOL-approved internship positions.

Ultimately, the prospective interns pay the biggest price. This group of individuals is losing out on great opportunities. Hopefully, businesses realize the immense talent they’re losing and tap back into that talent pool in a responsible way that benefits the interns.