College Grads As Free Labor?
Thousands of dollars in student debt isn’t the only thing weighing down our newly minted college graduates. For years we have held that the key to securing a good job and financial stability is a college education. But the new reality is that a college degree doesn’t guarantee employment, and even for those who do secure work, a salary might not be part of the package.
Last month, a New York Times article reported that as recent college graduates are facing a weak job market, they find themselves having to accept unpaid internships instead of the salaried jobs they expected to land. And the practice is no longer isolated to the non-profit and film industries, it has spread to publishing houses, marketing companies, and law firms.
Internships can provide young people with invaluable experiences. But there is a big difference between accepting an unpaid internship when you are still a student, and doing so after you’ve completed your degree. There is a problem when college graduates are taking unpaid internships, not as apprenticeships or fellowships in the non-profit sector, but in for-profit industries that should be offering paid positions.
The legality of unpaid post-graduate internships in for-profit sectors is questionable at best. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are six criteria that an internship must meet in order to be unpaid: it must be similar to a training program that would be given in an educational environment, it must be for the benefit of the intern, it must not displace existing workers, the activities of the intern must not provide any immediate advantage to the employer, the intern is must not necessarily be entitled to a job after the internship, and the employer and the intern must both understand that the intern is not entitled to a wage.
Unpaid internships have a regressive effect on our recent graduates, functioning to reinforce a culture of privilege in many career fields. As many college graduates struggle to pay off their student loans, they find it impossible to take unpaid positions. And even if a student manages to graduate without loans, living without a salary is not possible for most recent graduates. This isolates certain work to only those students who have families wealthy enough to fund their unpaid positions. So while the students that can afford it are getting their foot in the door, and eventually receiving offers for salaried career positions, the other students are taking dead-end underemployment positions as waitresses and salesclerks.
If we want to provide equal opportunities in Minnesota, we need to ensure that our companies and corporations are offering graduates employment, not exploitation.