In this past Sunday's New York Times, there was a fine Sunday Dialogue article, The Value of Internships. It can be viewed at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/20/opinion/sunday/sunday-dialogue-the-value-of-internships.html?partner=rss&emc=rss .
The Sunday Dialogue is an op-ed section feature which starts with a letter taking a stand on an issue, followed by several responses, then by comments on them by the original writer. Three days ago, Ilene Starger of Brooklyn made the points that internships, unpaid or not, are invaluable in many fields for learning a business, are still good, and have often been the beginnings of successful careers. The commenters either agreed with Starger, or claimed that internships, beneficial or not, violated minimum wage laws, were ways of offloading menial work to someone unpaid, and were, as one put it, "bad for the worker, bad for the employer and bad for society." Starger responded to these issues and more, yet one critical point went completely unmentioned.
Why have there been internships? In many fields, such as the show-business-related ones mentioned in the article, they have historically been good for both worker and company. Those starting out in a field gained opportunities to not only learn a great deal about the business, but to gain a credential, that of a job in the field held and successfully completed. Employers would get someone likely eager, cooperative, enthusiastic, and unpaid or low paid - though the article considers internships as completely uncompensated, many over the years have included stipends, food, housing, or even minimum-wage level money - and offers them an in-depth look at a candidate for a permanent, substantially paying position. Allowing skirting of minimum wage laws could actually provide much more opportunity for interns to learn in settings where would need to put in significant time but little true labor, such as staying all day at a theater where a play would be performed. Business radio host Bruce Williams, when a caller said they wanted badly to go into a business which they did not know, would recommend that such a person approach someone owning such a venture and offer to be "their slave" for two months, if they could learn all about how the business really worked. I don't remember him using the word, but that would be nothing, really, more than a rather intense internship. How else to get a job without experience or experience without a job? So, with applicants generally outnumbering positions, and results often superb, internships, even unpaid, seem like winners.
However, Work's New Age has changed this picture. The businesses themselves need to do more than teach to keep up their end of the bargain - they need jobs after the internship to be reasonably available. That, often, is no longer the case. Williams' advice was fine for self-employment propositions, where what an owner knows goes directly to their personal bottom line, but anyone who suffered through the 1980s job-seeking fad of "information interviews" (in which people made arrangements to visit workplaces and learn about them, ostensibly just for general knowledge, but both they and their hosts knew what they really wanted was a job offer), knows that the credential and the job offer are vastly more important.
Accordingly, interns have had a fully justified expectation that, unlike some courses of college study, their unpaid or low-paid work at a for-profit business has a good chance of getting them a "real" job later. Interns must have true opportunity - if they do not, due either to too many of them or too few permanent positions, the de facto contract is broken, and internships should not be offered without heavy disclaimers.
That, not violations of minimum wage or other labor law, which workers would with real chances suffer happily, is the problem with internships today. Employers of interns must be fully responsible for how their charges, as a group, fare afterwards, and if it is not well, then - and only then - they must fully comply with all labor laws.
For each former intern who started a good career in the field, but felt exploited at the beginning to the point where if they could do it over again they wouldn't, there are now dozens who felt abused only when they could not catch on in the field. And THAT - catching on in the field - is what internships are all about.