There are far worse things than unpaid internships

As someone who’s graduating in less than four months, it’s impossible not to envision a sobering reality: Despite having spent the past four years working toward a Bachelor’s degree and the last two and a half working at the Daily Egyptian, I’ll be jobless effective immediately. I’ll live in the streets — or if I’m lucky, a cardboard box.

It’s either that or graduate school. I’m sure taking out yet another student loan is on top of everyone’s to-do list after graduation.

I’d take the cardboard box any day.

The truth is no one will hire me until I have enough experience — something only an internship could give me. Of course, I would opt for a paid internship because I deserve it. After all, like any college graduate, I categorize myself as extremely talented and certainly overqualified for any position I apply for.

That’s an exaggeration and a half.

With a failing economy, no employer in their right mind would risk hiring someone who lacks real-world experience, so I understand where employers are coming from.

So now I’ve exhausted all my options: homelessness, graduate school or a paid internship. But there’s one more: the dreadful unpaid internship.

Wait. Society expects me to live off nothing? I have a dog and fiancé to feed – and if I want to shower, I have to pay the water bill.

The issue of unpaid internships being ethical has become a hot topic of debate. Forty-six percent of young adults ages 18 to 24 are currently unemployed, the lowest since 1948 when the government began collecting this data, according to a study released Feb. 9 by Pew Research Center.

It’s no wonder why people are fired up over unpaid internships. Nearly half of that age group is unemployed.

You’ve got one side of the argument thinking unpaid internships are evil and secretly a means for employers to take advantage of young talent at the intern’s expense. Broke college students usually land on this side of the fence. Employers land on the other.

A graduate student from Ohio State University made news earlier this month for suing the magazine she interned at in 2011. Xuedan “Diana” Wang alleged she worked 40-to-55-hour workweeks without compensation, according to a Chicago Tribune article.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, an unpaid internship must have educational value. Wang claims the internship had no such value, and if her description of her experience there is true — carrying bags of clothes to P.R. firms – then she’s technically right and the employer violated labor laws.

When her internship ended, Wang had hoped to receive a letter or recommendation but her supervisor declined, according to an article by the Huffington Post. The supervisor cited Wang’s mistakes when giving instructions to the interns she supervised.

She said she was also assigned to the position of “head intern,” inherently placing her in charge of other unpaid interns.

According to act, an unpaid intern cannot displace regular employees and must work under close supervision of existing staff — so how did she beome responsible for supervising other interns in the first place?

Employers, particularly those in the fashion industry, argue that this type of work is the nature of the business, and shouldn’t be so heavily scrutinized.

I have an issue with that argument because the commonly uttered excuse “this is how it’s always been” is an obvious cop-out. While an establishing precedent may fool people into believing something to be “fact”, that “fact” isn’t necessarily ethical.

If Wang’s claims are true, I’d have to side with her. Anyone closing in on a 55-hour workweek could reasonably expect some form of compensation, especially if the employer has been violating labor laws.

Eliminating unpaid internships and making them all paid is an unreasonable, and an unlikely outcome in this debate. Enforcing stricter oversight on employers that offer unpaid internships is one solution, or in lieu of unpaid internships, employers could offer compensation in the form of scholarship money, rather than hourly wages, as some internships already do.

There’s the obvious difference between the words paid and unpaid, and then there’s the not-so-obvious difference between fair and unfair. A number of unpaid internships abide by labor laws and have a important place in society. Internships, whether paid or unpaid, often open the door to future job opportunities, or at the very least, keep a new college graduate motivated in pursuing their interests.

In this economy, employers cannot realistically afford to pay interns like they used to.

Having worked in my field of study for the last couple of years while getting paid has spoiled me. I’ll admit we’re lucky at the Daily Egyptian. We get something most other college newspaper employees don’t: a paycheck. Granted, like all jobs in the newspaper business, the hours put in will certainly surpass wages earned — but I’m lucky to be paid for the work I do here.

As with any internship, the graduate is going to learn a heck of a lot more than flipping burgers or sitting in a classroom.

When I graduate, I’ll consider one more option. If you don’t see me waiting in line at a bank to take out a student loan, or see me living in a cardboard box, I’ll have most likely accepted an unpaid internship or already landed a job at the Chicago Tribune. One seems more likely than the other.

Whichever comes first.

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