By Michael Koretzky
Six months ago, I spoke on an internship panel and pissed off everyone – because I offered to pay students for their work.
I’m editor of Debt.com, which (like everything else these days) is owned by a bigger company. Usually, a Human Resources rep recruits at college job and internship fairs. But on this day in October, everyone in HR was busy. So they sent me to sit on a “Department of English Internship Panel” at a local public university.
There were four other employers at the head table: a book publisher, a U.S. senator’s office, an SEO company, and a marketing agency. When it was my turn to talk, I mentioned Debt.com pays $10 an hour, and I knew other internships in the company offered the same.
“I wish it could be more,” I concluded.
And with that, shit got unreal.
Unpaid and unhinged
As the words left my mouth, I saw the Career Center director staring back at me with wide eyes. A woman from the English Department, who had greeted me so sweetly when I walked in, looked like she just swallowed her own vomit.
I glanced to my left and right. My fellow panelists were glaring at me. I thought I might have snot hanging from my nose. I instinctively wiped my face.
Apparently, I had done something even more repulsive. I mentioned money.
Everyone who wasn’t a student desperately spun their defense for not paying interns. Besides the usual –” valuable experience,” “resume building,” “networking opportunities” – there was this gem from the marketing woman sitting to my right: “We have a snack closet!”
Just as I was about to ask how a snack closet works, the English Department woman chimed in: “And you can earn up to three credits! You just pay…”
And then it hit me.
While I already knew unpaid internships were evil – I’ve advised a college newspaper for two decades – I didn’t realize until that moment just how organized this crime was. Everyone is in on it, except for the students…
- The school either requires students to take an unpaid internship or hard-sells its dubious virtues.
- The school lures marginal employers with promises of slave labor.
- Those employers agree to lie on the appropriate paperwork so this free work skirts federal law.
- The school charges full tuition for zero overhead – no need to hire a professor or even air-condition a classroom.
It’s legalized human trafficking. Except human traffickers don’t charge their slaves tuition.
The U.S. Department of Labor allows unpaid internships if, and only if…
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Journoterrorist blog is an individual blog written by Michael Koretzky and does not reflect any idea or opinion of the Society of Professional Journalists. Michael Koretzky is editor of Debt.com and is Region 3 Director of Society of Professional Journalists. @koretzky
Editors Note: SPJ Region 3 provides paid internships for students who work for the region and SizingUpTheSouth.com.