The helicopter parenting trend made unpaid internships very popular for the Millennial generation. Well-meaning, high-achieving parents thought that giving their children experience in a professional environment would give them a leg up on their college and job applications. They reached through their networks to find friends and family members in positions of power to give their children experiences in highly specialized fields.
Internships moved toward being unpaid because the students didn’t yet have the skills or knowledge to contribute significantly to the organization and they didn’t want to do menial work. Rather, they were looking for educational experiences.
When this trend caught on, it became normal and even expected for students to have flashy unpaid internships listed on their resumes under “work experience.” The problem was, the internships often did not really include work experience.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor added new language to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to protect students from having to do any work when they are not paid for it. Currently, unpaid internships in the U.S. are legally required to be “for the benefit of the intern,” not the employer. Students have since expected internships to be fun and exciting, not tedious and boring as work often is.
The problem is, much of the time, work is tedious and boring. It’s why we get paid to do it. Taking on an unpaid internship to indulge in fun and education doesn’t prepare someone for a job. In fact, it does just the opposite. It sets up false expectations of work.
I recently had a graduate-student intern who was learning what it was like to become an instructor. One day she called me with less than 24 hours notice to tell me she couldn’t teach her portion of a class she had taken on because she had too much schoolwork.
I was not pleased. I saw it as a failure to follow through on a commitment. She never even thought to apologize. Instead, she said she was sorry to miss an opportunity for an experience.
The question was, what kind of experience was she hoping to gain? Did she want to learn what it’s like to teach a class? If so, the most fundamental lesson is to show up. On-time and prepared are the second two lessons. You can be a great executive trainer, but if you miss any of these three pieces, you are likely to get fired.
Unlike unpaid internships, paid work is for the benefit of the employer, subject to many employment laws. Thus, it is important to understand that unpaid interns are not necessarily learning what it means to work. And that’s exactly where the problem lies. Instead of requiring companies to create exciting showcases of jobs for students to get unpaid experiences, it might be more useful to go back to paying students to get real on-the-job experience—a win-win.
But would students want this kind of experience? After all, many students don’t take paid jobs precisely because they don’t think it is the kind of experience that will land them a professional job upon graduation. They feel pressure from companies to have job-relevant experience on their resumes and they feel the only way they can get it is to take unpaid internships.
On the other hand, companies feel pressure from students to have educational experiences and they don’t want to have to pay interns for that. The government says you can’t have students work for free if the experience is not for them. I think we’re getting tangled in the definition of what job relevant experience really is and whether it is educational.
Working at a drug store is job relevant experience for an executive trainer: you have to show up on time and be prepared to work. If I see a year of part-time work at a drug store on someone’s resume, I know they have had to demonstrate responsible, reliable, customer-service oriented behavior. Participating in a 3-week showcase of attention-grabbing events, on the other hand, demonstrates that the person has seen some great stuff. It does not give me a sense of their work ethic or abilities. Both, however, are educational to a student.
In the case of my unpaid intern, I had put significant time and effort into training her and finding opportunities for her to gain experience doing front-line work, such as teaching executives. I considered this my part of the deal. It would have been quicker and easier for me to do the work myself, but I wanted to give her opportunities. I structured the class to have breakout groups where interns could moderate. When the intern called to cancel with a day to spare, I had to drop what I was doing and spend extra time to restructure the class to teach it with one less facilitator.
Did my intern learn anything from this unpaid educational experience? I certainly did. Whether or not interns need to get paid, they definitely need to learn how to behave responsibly if they want to succeed in the workplace.