September 16, 2010 | | Leave a comment Having trouble finding a job? I have a great idea! Why don’t you work for free? Yes, you heard me right. Get up early every day, put on business attire, brave commuter traffic, slam down a fast food breakfast (spilling coffee on your nether regions along the way), and plant yourself behind a desk where you give it your all in return for the sheer pleasure of gaining hands-on EXPERIENCE! Back in the good old days, when unemployment nonchalantly lingered at a low 3%, you could expect to get a job right out of college, or even make a midlife career change on a whim. But now with the unemployment rate hovering around 10%, not only is it hard to find work, more people are agreeing to work for below value, or even free as interns. Originally, internships were designed as a way for the young and inexperienced to acquire valuable skills in a field in which they hoped to someday have a career. Typically, college students became interns their last year of study, and in almost all cases they worked for very little money or free. Both sides benefited, and no one felt slighted because there was enough employment to go around for everyone. But when jobs got scarce people got creative. Those who found themselves unemployed long term offered their services as interns while they continued to hunt for work. The idea being that when the economy turned around interns would be the first ones hired. And even though there seems to be some truth to that, the whole idea of using interns in a soft job market began to change. Suddenly internships went from being a training program to free labor. But that’s not to say using an internship to gain fulltime employment is not a legitimate job-seeking device. You just need to be smart about it. Like anything, using an internship as a springboard to a regular salary has its pros and cons. Internship Pros The most obvious pro is that an internship is typically easier to obtain than a paying job. But how do you find one short of knocking on every door in the downtown metropolitan area like some ragamuffin street urchin offering to work for free? Look for companies that have well-established internship programs. Many of these organizations post their intern job descriptions on their websites, and in some cases offer an online application or questionnaire to see if you fit the criteria of being an intern. These are the best opportunities to pursue because you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into and for how long. Consider only internships that offer training similar to that found in vocational or college classes. A good internship should plump up your resume and make you look like the most valuable worker to come along since Mother Teresa, because let’s face it, isn’t that the only reason you’re willing go this route in the first place? Internship Cons The dark side of internships is that they can run dangerously close to exploitation. With employers struggling to meet payroll and the unemployed willing to work for free the U.S. Labor Department has been forced to step in and investigate the practices of many for-profit firms that are not compensating interns properly. For example, anyone with legitimate work experience in the field for which they are interning should be paid something. “If 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,” said The U.S. Labor Department’s Nancy J. Leppink in an April 2, 2010, New York Times interview. According to the department’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) interns cannot displace regular employees and an employer cannot profit directly from an intern’s daily duties. As far as the Labor Department is concerned an internship must help promote the intern’s career path, as opposed to being a way for a struggling employer to get free labor. With so many people looking for work right now, internships are still a legitimate way to secure a job IF the company you intern for doesn’t stick with you with all the cruddy tasks no one around the office wants to do. Make sure your duties are relative to your career and completely outlined before you start, so you don’t end up as a glorified janitor when you thought you were interning as an assistant editor. Just because you’re willing to work for little or nothing to gain experience, doesn’t mean you should agree to be slave labor to do it.