Saturday, September 7, 2013

Eager students need not apply...

So I get this email a while back from John (I only share emails from folks named John [or Jane]), the young finance major who grew up in my neighborhood. He said he was looking for an opportunity to learn, and wondering if I might allow him to hang out at my office a few days a week, do some "work", and observe how an investment firm is run. "Best of all" he said "you don't have to pay me."

How generous of young John. He was offering to distract me, and my staff, from our duties at hand while we show him how things are done around here. Of course John wasn't thinking that at all---he was thinking he could perform some function that, at a minimum, would make the experience a win-win.

But the thing is, we don't need additional staff to make copies, stuff envelopes or take out the trash (with the advent of amazing technology, the need for copying and stuffing---and our volume of trash---has diminished markedly over the past few years). And tasks that require more skill cannot be entrusted to an untrained intern. "Selfish" you say? Perhaps. But, you see, we take our responsibilities to our clients very seriously. We cannot afford to spend the time and resources required to train an intern whom we have no intent whatsoever in hiring. I guess I could charge him our hourly rate and allow him, therefore, to interrupt operations for a few hours a day, but John doesn't have a job, and I'm sure John Sr. (his dad, and my neighbor)---having never imagined such a thing---would be unwilling to foot our bill.

Just so you don't think too ill of me, know that I have, on several occasions, happily taken personal time to share my insights into our industry with my friend John. He knows (and appreciates) that I'm always available (except, that is, during work hours) to answer questions, offer advice, etc. That way I can give him my undivided attention and not concern myself with the workflow at the office. And, that way, I run no risk of being sued for not paying an "intern" to take out the trash. I kid you not! Here's the Labor Department's Nancy Leppink on the subject:
If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law.

The fact that the number of unpaid internships had "mushroomed" from 2008-2010 (per the Leppink article) speaks to the fact that companies had been as willing as ever to offer a youngster a learning experience, but less willing---or able---to lose money in the process.

The present campaign against unpaid internships will no doubt succeed in forcing the creation of a few new minimum wage positions. Yet, sadly, it will also result in far fewer opportunities for eager students to trade a few hours of work each week for experiences that would ultimately help them land high-paying jobs.

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