Quite a few college students across the country who earlier this year had dreams of spending their summer working at a rewarding internship are instead toiling away at fast food restaurants or other similar jobs. Often, their disappointed parents want to know, “What happened?" They might be surprised at the answer.
First, let’s get one thing out of the way. There is nothing wrong with working at a fast food restaurant or doing other menial work. I spent my first two summers during college trimming Christmas trees in northern Michigan (no, those perfect shapes don’t come naturally) and working at a factory ripping up old wood pallets and then making a fence around the factory with the boards. I was thankful for the work. But in my later college years, I eventually got an internship, and it led directly to my first job after college.
Today, however, many college students won’t get that coveted internship before they graduate. Some of their parents will wonder if the reason their son or daughter missed out on an opportunity to gain valuable experience in their field of study was because their grades were too low or their resume was lacking. What could they have done differently? Who else could they have talked to?
The sad truth is that in many cases, it’s Uncle Sam’s fault.
Last year while I was sitting in a back room at Fox News waiting to appear on John Stossel’s show, I noticed something different from previous years. I had been invited there six summers in a row, and I always enjoyed talking to the interns as I waited for my segment to be filmed.
And then, there were no interns. I asked an assistant where the college students were and was told that the network had cut back on offering internships after a federal judge ruled that all interns in the private sector must now be paid. Knowing a little bit about how excessive litigation is changing America, it didn’t really surprise me, but what did surprise me was learning that those lawsuits were actually rooted in a little-known set of federal regulations.
John Stossel pointed me to a column he had written on the topic, and that’s when I learned that the U.S. Labor Department under President Obama had changed the rules for what kinds of internships are allowed in the private sector. Now, unpaid internships in the private sector are allowed only if all of the following six criteria are met:
- 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;
- The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
- The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
- 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;
- The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
- The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
Read the fourth bullet point again. The employer can derive “no immediate advantage” from the intern. If you're a student, would you really want an internship with an employer who gets no advantage from your activities? You're supposed to work at internships to gain experience that will help you land a job someday.
On the flip side, as an employer, it's virtually impossible to prove that you didn't gain some advantage from the intern if, say, you get sued later on. Because, of course, that’s what happens now in America. Just ask TV personality Charlie Rose.
A few years ago, Rose was sued by some former unpaid interns who claimed they should have been paid. He wound up having to pay them up to a quarter of a million dollars. Then, Harpers magazine was also sued. More and more employers were being accused of not complying with the federal regulations, and they were finding it hard to prove they got “no immediate advantage” from their interns.
Faced with this new reality, publisher Conde Nast simply decided to end its intern program. On the advice of their legal counsel, many others have followed. Recently, Steve Slattery, Executive Vice President of The Fund for American Studies, an educational non-profit organization that has placed thousands of students in Washington D.C. internships since 1967, said “many of the most prestigious entities have dropped their unpaid internship programs after years of enthusiastic participation.”
Put yourself in the shoes of an employer who has to explain to their employees who are now paying higher deductibles for their healthcare and who have gone too long without the pay raise they were expecting that you are now dedicating a portion of your budget to pay for a summer intern. It's not hard to understand why so many internships have evaporated.
So, despite the fact that there are thousands of college students who would jump at the chance to have an unpaid internship, they’re just not there. As Bryan Caplan at the Foundation for Economic Education has pointed out, the federal government has made it virtually impossible for businesses in the private sector to offer the opportunities provided by unpaid internships. Parents who bolstered their resumes with an unpaid internship when they were in college must now understand that their children aren’t being offered the same opportunities.
Well, that’s only partially true. If the student is interested in politics, there are still at least two places that can still offer unpaid internships: Congress and the White House. Of course, they write the laws.
Bob Dorigo Jones is senior fellow at the Center for America, creator of the annual Wacky Warning Labels™ Contest, and the bestselling author of "Remove Child Before Folding: The 101 Stupidest, Silliest and Wackiest Warning Labels Ever." His weekly radio commentary, "Let’s Be Fair!" airs on radio stations across the U.S. To read more of his reports, Click Here Now.
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