Feb 062012
Authors: Colleen McSweeney

Have you ever almost asphyxiated yourself inside a too-tight Renaissance corset while shouting in a painfully fake British accent, “Come get yourself a hot, fresh, juicy corn dog! They’re King Henry’s delight!”

I’ve done this, along with many other demoralizing things, throughout my long career of minimum wage-paying jobs.

During my first job as a sandwich cook at the restaurant Bella Panini, I’d burn my hand daily on the giant panini press, often causing me to accidentally drop a freshly-made sandwich into a nearby vat of ranch dressing. This would have been fine, had anyone ever ordered their turkey cheddar panini “soaked in ranch dressing, please.”

I didn’t last long at that home of the “Beautiful Sandwich.”

But despite the embarrassments and life-long hand injuries gained from these jobs and others, I like to think I learned some pretty imperative life skills along the way –– and earned a few bucks.

And it’s this time of year that so many college students, myself included, are scrambling to snag a summer internship that they hope will also gain them skills that will be useful in whatever career field they’re interested in –– except that a lot of us are also thinking, “are all unpaid internships really worth it?”

Of course, everyone seeks out the paid internships first. There’s nothing better than gaining valuable, hands-on experience and getting money for it, right? But in my case, paid journalism/writing internships are a rare and competitive find –– although it is probably best I get used to my inevitable fate of surviving off of free food samples at Costco.

And while unpaid internships clearly aren’t as desirable as their counterpart, many college students do them because they’re resume builders, they help gain connections and hopefully, and they will help prepare students for their post-graduation endeavors.

According to the College Employment Research Institute, between one-third and a half of all American college students enrolled in a four-year institution will take part in an unpaid internship sometime before they graduate.

We’re obviously eager to jump on any chance to “break into” the job market by interning at a company in our respective fields of interest. And we’re so eager that many of us are willing –– and for some majors, required –– to take on a internship without any compensation.

But are we so worried about finding an internship and gaining a competitive edge that we’ll settle for one we’re not even really interested in? And even worse, are companies taking advantage of unpaid interns, simply using them as ambitious free labor?

I’m starting to think that both of these may often be the case.

I started worrying about my possible future as a lowly unpaid intern when I read a piece in the New York Times entitled “Do unpaid internships exploit college students?”

One of the contributors to the piece, attorney Camille Olson says, “While students may be willing to accept unpaid internships or volunteer work in exchange for on-the-job experience and a potential connection to a future job, it is critical that employers follow applicable laws that closely regulate the circumstances under which a for-profit employer can accept these offers without paying at least minimum wage for the worker’s services.”

Apparently, the U.S. Department of Labor has established six rules that “for-profit” companies must comply to when using unpaid interns. And according to the article, most companies are violating at least one of those rules at any given time.

A rule that is often violated, rule No. 4, states: “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.”

In other words, Jimbo, the assistant manager who hired and trained you, is actually breaking the law when he asks you to do his job and “fill out the daily report, for experience, of course” — and when he asks you, “Hey, can you pick up my Caramel Macchiato on your way in tomorrow? Oh, and would you mind organizing my mail? Thanks, sugar!”

Most of us wouldn’t even question Jimbo’s commands, because that’s what unpaid interns are supposed to do, right? Wrong, unless your employers are breaking the law…

While unpaid internships can be largely beneficial, just make sure you know your rights, and your true potential learning opportunities, before entering one.

And no matter what, make sure never to enter an internship that involves Renaissance-era corn dogs.

Opinion editor Colleen McSweeney is a junior journalism major. Her column appears Tuesdays in the Collegian. She can be reached at letters@collegian.com.

 Posted by at 2:48 pm

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