Why I Support Illegal Internships

Why I Support Illegal Internships

In 2009, Eric Glatt had what sounded like the opportunity of a lifetime. After working on a few low budget documentary films, he applied for a chance to become an unpaid intern in a big budget film for Fox that he thought could really be something special. The name of that film? The Black Swan. Related:6 Reasons Internships Are A Must In College When he finally started working, he came to notice something interesting - he was doing the exact same work he was doing on paid gigs! Except he had "intern" in his job title, and he wasn't getting paid. What followed was a groundbreaking lawsuit that led to the district judge ruling in favor of Eric getting at least minimum wage, and opened the door to a bunch of successful illegal internship lawsuits in a variety of industries. From New York Times articles to political cartoons, everybody seems to be exposing these illegal internships as the exploitative, inequality promoting, pro-business-gone-wild travesties they are. But is that the whole story?

A Career Coach's View On Illegal Internships

As a career coach for liberal arts graduates and career changers, I've had a different experience. Time and again, illegal internships have allowed my students of all income levels and ages to get their foot in the door, and convince companies to give opportunities that they would never even consider in a paid internship.

6 Reasons Why I Support Illegal Internships

The past decade has seen a huge change in the career landscape, and illegal internships fill in a gap that no other form of work or training can.

1. They Give Young People And Career Changers A Foot In The Door

There used to be a variety of ways to get your foot in the door.
  • A college diploma, which used to set you head and shoulders above the competition, is now simply expected.
  • Apprenticeships, which have become very scarce in recent years.
  • On-the-job training, which has fallen out of favor for reasons I'll explain below.
Internships are one of the only ways left to truly bridge that gap when you have no experience in a new career.

2. They Allow Companies To Offset The Rising Cost Of Training

One of the well-documented trends in the past two decades is the decline of the "company man." In fact, workers of all ages have been staying at jobs for increasingly shorter periods of time. A consequence of this is the effect it has on training costs. Workers who do need the training are staying at the company for shorter periods of time, which decreases the return on investment for any training they receive. This effect led to an increased cost in training, and companies have found a creative way to pay for it: Trade free work experience for free on-the-job training. This is the essence of an illegal internship.

3. The Requirements For Legal Internships Are Ridiculous

The US Department of Labor gives the following six requirements for legal unpaid internships:
The following six criteria must be applied when making this determination:
  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.
These requirements were made with one concept in mind - to prevent companies from exploiting workers for free labor. However, what got lost in translation was the reason that the internship existed in the first place - to provide you with work experience and future job opportunities It's self-defeating to have a law (#4 above) that specifically denies you the right to create advantageous results for the company you work for - this is the very thing that allows you to prove you're qualified for a future paying job.

4. They Give Companies A Chance To Experiment

Illegal internships allow companies to offset the costs of risky projects and employees. For instance, Eric Glatt may never have gotten his big break if the company had needed a proven worker with a regular salary - the unpaid position allowed them to offset the risk of taking on an unknown person. Similarly, when I have students cold-contact companies and offer to do a project for free, the company can take them on with no risk. If the company had to go through the regular hiring process and add them to payroll, the risk simply wouldn't be worth it, even at minimum wage.

5. They Promote Equality

The traditional argument against illegal internships goes like this: Unpaid illegal internships privilege people who can afford to work full-time without getting paid - those who were born into wealth or affluence. They serve as a barrier to entry for low income people and keep career tracks available only for the privileged few. What this traditional argument ignores is a major trend that's been happening in hiring in recent years - the tendency to be willing to ignore credentials such as college diplomas if a person can get results. This trend means that as a low income person, you have two options: You can go to college to prove you're less risky to a company, and get a paid internship to prove you can get results. OR... You can self-educate, remove risk from a company by taking on an illegal internship, and then create results for them to prove you're qualified for a full-time job. You'll have to take on another part-time job to support yourself, but that's no different than college, and you'll avoid massive student debt. When seen in this light, unpaid internships are actually a great equalizer, not a promoter of inequality.

6. They Reward Proactive Behavior

One of the the reasons my students get such great results with unpaid internships is that they consciously go into the internship knowing exactly what they want out of it. While their peers are busy getting coffee and making copies, my students are writing in-depth proposals, networking like their life depends on it, and documenting all the results they achieve. This aspect of unpaid internships teaches interns a valuable mindset that they can use throughout their career - you don't get anything just for showing up - not even a paycheck. You work for every result you get.


So, was Eric Glatt's internship simply a naive job seeker getting taken advantage of by an exploitative company? I think I've shown that the answer is no. It was a mutually beneficial agreement that allowed Eric to get a job that he never would have otherwise, and allowed Fox to take a chance on him. When utilized in the right way, illegal internships can be great for companies, great for job seekers, and even great for the economy. Still disagree? Let me know why in the comments. This is a guest post.

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