The Department of Labor has a six-part test for unpaid interns, which determines whether or not for-profit companies can ask them to work for free. In order to stay on the right side of the law, employers must ensure (among other things) that the work interns perform is for the interns’ benefit, that it provides training similar to what they’d get in an educational environment, and that interns understand that they aren’t entitled to a job at the end of the internship or wages during it.
Internships at Ivanka Trump’s fashion label may well meet every part of the test, but they assuredly meet the last one, since one of the company’s interns recently wrote a post for the label’s blog entitled, How to Survive as an Unpaid Intern. It was later promoted on Twitter:
— Ivanka Trump (@IvankaTrump) August 18, 2016
Sample advice included setting up a budget, socializing on the cheap, and taking a paying part-time job. The Twittersphere immediately caught fire.
what the hell do you know about being an unpaid intern? Or making it work? Why all your emojis black women?? #TrumpPence16
— bodhizwanya (@malikazwanya) August 18, 2016
What's the "one weird trick"? Be born rich?
— Nick (@fools_n_kings) August 18, 2016
— Colin 🍁 (@csmith03) August 18, 2016
While a few commenters noted that internships are a valuable source of experience, even unpaid, most were outraged at a billionaire’s daughter asking her interns not only to work for free, but to write a blog post helping other interns work for free.
The post also glosses over the reality of unpaid internships and who can afford to take them — people who don’t need to work to pay for tuition and living expenses.
“Of course, [the intern] leaves out the real key to surviving an unpaid internship: having well-off parents,” writes Emily Peck at The Huffington Post. “Kids with families that can support them while they take on jobs for nothing are more likely to take on jobs for nothing.”
Peck notes that Trump likely didn’t send out the tweet herself, and certainly didn’t write the post. Still, the optics, as they say, are not great. #nomoneynoproblems? Easy to say, when you’ve got all the money in the world.
Are Unpaid Internships a Career-Builder or Exploitation?
The two sides of the unpaid internship debate are roughly these:
- Internships, even unpaid ones, provide valuable work experience and skills development that can be leveraged into full-time positions.
- They help interns build their network, forming connections that could lead to paying work at that company or others.
- Companies shouldn’t have to pay for students to learn; unpaid internships for college credit are learning experiences, for the benefit of the students, not unpaid labor for the employer.
- You don’t have to be rich to intern, as long as you can find time to work at a paying job as well, or get loans or grants to help finance your education. After all, few people can pay for school out-of-pocket these days, anyway.
- While it’s true that non-wealthy people can find a way to finance school with loans and living expenses with part-time jobs, students from low-income backgrounds are often shut out. If you already have to work two or three jobs to pay the bills, you don’t have time to work for free.
- Unpaid internships perpetuate the cycle of privilege. “I sometimes get calls and emails from friends seeking help in landing internships for their children. I understand what they’re doing; this is part of being a parent,” writes Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, in a New York Times article mentioned by Peck. “Still, it’s a reminder that America’s current internship system, in which contacts and money matter more than talent, contributes to an economy in which access and opportunity go to the people who already have the most of both.”
- Far from setting up interns for paying jobs after graduation, unpaid internships can lock students into a cycle of unpaid work — and maybe even put them on track for a lower paying job. A 2014 survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers showed that 37 percent of students who did unpaid internships had jobs upon graduation … only slightly higher than the 35 percent of students who didn’t do internships at all. Those with unpaid internships also made less money than either students with paid internships or those who skipped it altogether.
Ultimately, no one can tell a potential unpaid intern whether taking that gig will set them up for a rich and interesting career … or just a lot of free work. What we can say is that companies who maintain these programs need to understand that working without getting paid isn’t accessible to all or easy for most. All the free socializing and careful budgets in the world won’t change that.
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