Valuable Job Experience

  • Author: Michael Saltsman

  • Publication Date: May 2010

  • Newspaper: The Oklahoman

  • Topics: Minimum Wage, Teen Unemployment

How bad is the job market? Forget layoffs 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 to fetch someone’s morning latte may be extreme, but it’s no secret that people starting 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 may put 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.”

Faced with the threat of federal lawsuits, many companies may cancel or restrict their internship programs, cutting off a vital resource for countless young Americans.

Anyone braving the classifieds looking for jobs out of college has encountered the same catch-22. Any interesting looking job requires experience, but to get experience you need a job. 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.

For instance, the television industry is notoriously hard to break into; many people start out in part-time and unpaid positions. I doubt 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, Donald Trump and Frank Lloyd Wright.

It’s a common misconception that unpaid interns provide “free” labor. But for businesses, 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 aren’t worth the trouble.

Right now, thousands of young graduates would love to work for free, and thousands of companies are willing to open their doors and spend time and resources training and mentoring. But with summer approaching and internship opportunities drying up, it’s more likely those young people will instead resort to low-paying jobs for which they are overqualified. Not only will they be spinning their wheels when they should be laying the foundation for their career, but they’ll also crowd out uneducated workers looking for basic employment.

Sometimes 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 government get out of the way.

Saltsman is research fellow at the Employment Policies Institute ( www.epionline.org).