Without Internships, Oprah Might Not Be A Mogul

  • Author: Michael Saltsman

  • Publication Date: May 2010

  • Newspaper: Detroit News

  • Topics: Minimum Wage, Teen Unemployment

How bad is the job market? Forget layoffs, furloughs, and salary cuts — these days, people are paying for the privilege of working.

Internships in the fashion industry have been selling for up to $42,500. That’s how much one job seeker paid for a one-week internship with Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour. In comparison, an unpaid semester-long gig with designer Donatella Versace looks like a bargain at $5,250.

Paying thousands of dollars to fetch someone their morning latte may be a little extreme, but it’s no secret that people starting their careers will go to great lengths to get their foot in the door. Unfortunately for the 2 million students graduating from college this year, a new Labor Department crackdown on unpaid internships will likely put eagerly anticipated career plans on hold.

According to Labor Department bureaucrat Nancy Leppink, “there aren’t going to be any circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law.”

Leppink is presumably still waiting to receive a thank-you note from the nation’s college students, but they’ll have plenty of free time to write her this summer. Faced with the threat of federal lawsuits, many companies may end up canceling or restricting their internship programs, cutting off a vital resource for countless young Americans.

Anyone who has braved the classified ads (or Craigslist) looking for their first job out of college has encountered the same Catch-22. Any job that looks interesting requires experience, but to get experience you need a job. More and more, internships offer a bridge across that gap — 83 percent of college students complete at least one before graduation, and roughly half of those are unpaid.

The television industry is notoriously hard to break into, for instance, so many people start out in part-time and unpaid positions. I doubt that Oprah Winfrey regrets her time as a lowly intern at the CBS station in Nashville. She’s in good company: Other famous former interns include Steven Spielberg, Carl Bernstein, Donald Trump, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

A common misconception is that unpaid interns provide “free” labor. But for a business, each intern costs real money to train and supervise. If the Labor Department tacks on a few thousand dollars in pay, it will no doubt convince many employers that interns just aren’t worth the trouble.

Right now, thousands of young college graduates would love to work for free for a few months, and thousands of companies are willing to open their doors and spend time and resources to train and mentor them (even Anna Wintour is giving the money to charity). But with summer approaching and internship opportunities drying up, it’s looking more and more likely that those young people will instead resort to low-paying jobs for which they are overqualified. Not only will they end up spinning their wheels when they should be laying the foundation for their career, they’ll also crowd out uneducated workers looking to find basic employment.

Sometimes the government is faced with truly difficult decisions. This is not one of those times: Preserving internship opportunities for college students and young Americans only requires that the government get out of the way.

For the sake of everyone hoping to step on the first rung of the ladder, I hope that common sense makes a comeback with Labor Department leaders. And I hope that whoever bought that internship at Vogue gets their money’s worth.

Unfortunately, neither of those things seems likely.

Michael Saltsman is the research fellow at the Employment Policies Institute, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to studying public policy issues surrounding entry-level employment.