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Unpaid Internships could become extinct if Obama Administration and Labor Department have their way


I love family photo Christmas cards and this one endearingly featured two high school students and a horse. She looks just like her mom, I thought to myself, whom I had last seen more than two decades ago when Kirsten was our student intern. During her last week on the job, she introduced me to her future husband whom she had met on the internship program designed to introduce students from small, mid-western colleges to corporate life in the big city – Philadelphia, specifically. We’ve exchanged Christmas cards ever since and life has worked out well for Kirsten and her family. Now, she wrote in the card, she wants to give back by working with students in her own community.

Kirsten was the first of many student interns from the same program to work in our Philadelphia office and virtually all have been success stories. In exchange for a semester of service, we’ve helped launch many a career and even hired one student upon her graduation (we’ve made offers to many more, but they’ve had their pick of jobs after interning here). It’s a great program for helping students transition from college life to work life. For one semester, they must find a place to live in Philadelphia and gain a placement in one of the sponsoring companies. They are prohibited from receiving compensation in any form other than training, experience and college credits. That’s because the program administrators want the students to make their placement decisions solely on educational and career-building criteria. The program has been running smoothly for more than two decades and receives nothing but praise from students and sponsors alike. It’s a real win-win situation for everyone involved. But it, and every other program like it, may soon come to end, as reported in the Wall Street Journal:

The Obama administration, or at least part of it, is turning its attention to an unlikely target: unpaid internships. "There aren't going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship [at a for-profit company] and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law," a Labor Department official recently told the New York Times. The fear seems to be that dishonest employers will use unpaid interns to do the work that salaried entry-level staffers used to do. Not only does this displace jobless workers in a down economy, it also exploits the college students so desperate for work that they'll do menial jobs for free. That's the theory, anyway.

OMG, I never realized that I was exploiting students and displacing jobless workers all these years! Mea culpa, mea culpa… thank you Labor Department for opening my eyes. These poor exploited students must be suffering some sort of false-consciousness to actually apply to this program, let alone benefit from it. Yet the article goes on to describe some very positive unpaid internship experiences reported by the students themselves. And a Washington Times article reveals the ideological roots of the debate, as so aptly expressed by the pro-union Economic Policy Institute:

"The current system of regulations governing internships must be reformed, both for the immediate protection of students' rights and also to maintain a strong and vibrant labor market that compensates all workers fairly," researchers Kathryn Anne Edwards and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a labor-affiliated think tank, said in a study.

Ah yes, I love the way that the word “reform” invariably means piling on more and more stifling regulations with no regard for the outcome. It’s worth noting that nearly a third of the EPI’s funding comes from labor unions (according to epi.org itself) and that the group has co-sponsored events with global union advocacy groups like the Global Policy Network and the International Labor Rights Forum. Put two and two together and it’s clear that the Obama Administration’s attack on unpaid internships is part and parcel of its overall pro-labor, anti-business mentality. By union standards, unpaid interns are the ultimate “rate-busters.” Now, this is the same administration that is encouraging students to voluntarily serve on all kinds of community NGOs, but God-forbid that they should work for free (and actually learn something useful to their careers) in the private sector. That’s simply un-American by this administration’s standards. But perhaps more insidious is the elimination of free choice: students will be permitted only to volunteer for that which is deemed politically correct by the administration. For their own good, of course: “Hi! We’re from The Government and we’re here to help you!” Sorry Kirsten, your kids may never have the opportunities that you had to grow and give back.

My mother, God rest her soul, often used the expression “like a bull in a China shop” to describe the mindless albeit unintended destruction caused by those nosing around in places they shouldn’t be. And that’s exactly what this government is like – a big, dumb animal destructively nosing its way into all corners of everyday life where it doesn’t belong. Once again, ideology will trump practicality and both students and employers will be the losers. No one will win except government bureaucrats, big labor and idealogues who believe we need the government to “protect us” from the horrors of private enterprise. The same government that just took over the student loan program so that the big, bad banks can’t “exploit” student loans for private gain. I really wish that the government would quit playing games with our kids and focus on job creation – real job creation, not more government expansion. That and only that is the best way it can help our students.

Photo of interns from http://images.wnec.edu