Interns of the World, Unite

Are interns being exploited to do real jobs in the workplace for little or no pay? Well, yes. It's a troubling trend, involving young people who have already graduated from college. Is it time interns made a stand?

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It's summer, which means it's also the season of interns. At businesses all across the United States, including here at NPR, there are eager, bright-eyed young people, mostly students, taking up residence in the next cubicle or down the hall, desperate for some real-life experience in radio journalism, banking, commodity trading, advertising, you name it.

Many are not paid for their contribution, whether it's getting coffee or doing research. They'd certainly love some monetary compensation, but most are happy enough to learn the ropes of their chosen profession, make a few contacts, gain some modest skills and, of course, build a resume that will impress someone. Someone who might actually decide to pay them.

Most businesses don't depend on interns for mission critical tasks or to generate profits. Managers are happy to get a little assistance here and there in exchange for offering a bit of training and a chance to get a close look at the new talent and hire the ones who stand out.

But there's a new intern model emerging that's a little unsettling: interns who've graduated from college and whose labor is part of a company's business plan, key to the success of the company.

I was talking to a friend of my daughter's the other night. She's interested in the food business. In her first year out of college she worked for a prominent national grocery chain, and as a waitress in an upscale restaurant.

Recently she moved to New York to take an internship with a food website. They have what used to be called a webzine. Anyway, she was looking to broaden her experience and make some contacts. What she ended up doing is writing articles for the web magazine. In fact, all the articles for the web magazine are written by unpaid interns.

Now, this is not a new startup. It's a website that's been around for more than a decade, but it's clear the interns are providing mission critical content at no cost to the owners of the website.

She says it makes her feel a little uneasy, a little exploited. The least they could do, she says, is pay her fair compensation for each article. And it's not as though they're training her to write or research. It smells to me like exploitation too.

Maybe it's time for the interns of the world to unite and teach their employers a lesson. Labor should never be taken for granted.

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