The internship: unfair, exploitative and necessary

With ongoing national discussion of the legal gray area that is the internship, it’s important to keep in mind that although there are tremendous benefits, these benefits should be legally ensured to outweigh the cost.

For example, my political journalism internship is in Washington, D.C. this semester. I’m sure if you ask any professor in the political science or journalism departments, they’ll say a D.C. internship greatly opens up one’s job prospects post-graduation. But along with that internship is the tremendous cost of living in an expensive city without steady pay.

Another thing to worry about is how open the internship is to exploitation. A case that gained national attention concerns interns at Fox Searchlight Pictures. They were really interns in name only. The judge ruled the interns deserved pay because they were essentially regular employees, with the only difference being they were working for free.

Another recent example is the legal workplace harassment loophole. A federal judge ruled in a sexual harassment lawsuit that an intern working for Phoenix Satellite Television U.S. wasn’t an employee, therefore the case had to be thrown out.

The internship clearly has shortcomings. How can those who cannot afford to embark on such an expensive journey — I debated for months whether I could afford mine — rationalize doing so to receive no immediate pay? Yet someone may argue the return on investment (hopefully) is much greater. It’s not like students aren’t aware of this. Some just cannot swing taking that risk.

My goal is not to rail against internships and say the idea should be eliminated entirely. In fact, I think a good internship is a very important experience every student should have. That’s why it’s a graduation requirement for many students.

Without internships, many news organizations wouldn’t fill those roles with a paid position. If there weren’t internships, how would young people like me with no previous connections get a foot in the door?

Internships should have a strengthened judicial oversight so abuses cannot take place. An independent
judiciary is plenty capable of ensuring an internship is meeting certain standards — is this a learning experience for the intern and mutually beneficial for both parties?

Interns should also have the same legal rights and protections as others in the workforce. I’d imagine this problem, through closing loopholes such as the sexual harassment example, will fix itself soon enough.

Tackling the problem of the less advantaged students taking prominent internships to help better their
futures, however, is a different issue entirely. It’s not one that I see as solvable by legal means.

It’s appropriate to raise this question at a time when investing in education as a whole seems to be on the back burner of government agendas. In a nation concerned with manufactured issues like the shutdown and debt ceiling, other topics aren’t seeing their fair share of coverage.

What we need is to reinstate a powerful culture centered around creating opportunity for everybody, not just those who can afford it. In tandem with more funding to higher education we need to recognize if we want the disadvantaged students, which so many elected officials claim to encourage to continue their education, there needs to be serious subsidized investment behind internships.

The UW System could be a leader on this front. If a student secures an opportunity to intern at the place of their dreams and can demonstrate serious financial need, we should take that extra step to help them. Financially helping students is not a hand out, it’s smart and forward-thinking policy.
Education is an investment in the future tax base. Higher skilled workers mean better paying jobs, which mean more consumer spending, investment spending or even higher savings rates. This creates a healthier economy, not to mention more potential tax revenue.

Is the internship a golden opportunity for young professionals, or legal slavery? With a two-pronged attack consisting of proper legal oversight and a reinvestment in maximizing educational attainment, an internship should be something everyone should cherish instead of a national uncertainty.