I'm a pretty big fan of quid pro quo. Commensurate remuneration for services rendered has been a principle I've lived by since my entrepreneurial youth, when I developed a habit of swindling my parents out of money for doing my chores ("half-assedly", as mother would say).
Commensurate remuneration hasn't always come in the shape of money, though. I've gladly done jobs for concert tickets, the hug of a beloved friend, lunch, a cup of pudding (protein pudding, mind you), and some other things I'm not entirely proud of. But I've never, ever done work in return for an educational experience. Working for intangibles? That's just stupid. "Nothing gets you nothing. Everything has got a little price," as Thenardier sings in Les Miserables.
Of course, it's probably different for people who aspire to careers that actually have paths. Journalists, engineers, and advertising agents (among others) could probably all benefit from a little bit of internship experience. A creative writer? Connections probably help, but I could just as well get a job waiting tables and spend my free time writing allegories about my complex emotions by candlelight.
As I've been searching for that waiting job, some companies have been using unpaid interns to write another chapter in the long, venerable history of indentured servitude. They could be the new face of sweatshops -- prim, proper, and white-collar -- if Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) wasn't doing such a swell job keeping the ugly old guard alive.
Unpaid internships have been on the rise in recent years, somewhat supplanting the woefully outdated tradition of entry-level positions, as employers seek to minimize costs and college grads try to accrue some experience before they hit our somewhat improved but still less than fantastic job market.
This newfound popularity has naturally lead to plenty of scrutiny for the burgeoning institution -- scrutiny that isn't likely to go away as people who have questioned the legality of the practice are vindicated by recent revelations of employer misconduct.
Chief among these is last month's class-action filing by Xuedan Wang, a 28-year-old former intern at Harper's Bazaar. She alleges that Hearst Corp., the privately held parent company of Harper's and a host of other publications, including Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and Seventeen, violated federal and state labor laws by making interns work anywhere from 40 to 55 hours a week for no pay.
According to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, employers offering unpaid internships must meet six requirements to ensure the educational value of the experience for the interns and to guard against the displacement of regular workers. An unpaid internship is legal if the employer "derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operation may actually be impeded," the guidelines say. The internship must also be "for the benefit of the intern" and should not involve tasks that would otherwise be assigned to paid employees.
But duties reported by interns vary from wiping down doorknobs with disinfectant, which apparently isn't considered an educational opportunity, to shuffling paperwork, a job that infringes on the responsibilities of paid employees. Both allegedly violate the federal regulations put in place to prevent the exploitation of unpaid interns.
It might be worth mentioning that the regulations placed on internships derive from a 1947 Supreme Court decision involving exploitation of blue-collar apprentice workers. So the law itself might need some updating.
Of course, few interns are really reporting mistreatment. They're concerned that standing up for themselves could hurt their (paid) job prospects down the line. After all, what company would hire some do-good crusader fighting for interns' rights? Good luck finding a job now, Xuedan Wang.
This isn't to say that all internships are run by mean people looking for free labor. There are internships that exist solely to give talented young men and women an opportunity to show their stuff and succeed in life. They just have to be properly sought out, however hard that may be.
Have I ever thanked the Investor Uprising staff for giving me this wonderful (and paid) educational experience?