Internship competition is likely to be tough

03/16/2012 5:00 AM

05/16/2014 6:15 PM

It’s as much a part of spring as March Madness — college students knocking on doors and interviewing for summer internships.

This spring, however, a cold wind may be blowing in the face of many young job seekers.

According to recent news reports, some employers have gotten rid of unpaid internships this year or have converted them to paid programs and are hiring fewer summer employees because they fear lawsuits regarding compensation.

You can interpret that as good news because you’re more likely to be paid this summer if you land an internship.

It’s also good news that employers have been put on notice that they can’t take advantage of free labor.

But it puts the summertime squeeze on many students who will find fewer training positions available. As a result, they’ll lose out on entry-level workplace experience that could lead to full-time advancement.

The controversy stems in part from a handful of lawsuits that have been filed over the past year by unpaid interns who alleged they were taken advantage of and should have been paid for their work. In one lawsuit, a woman at Harper’s Bazaar magazine sued, saying she worked more than 50 hours a week as an unpaid fashion intern last summer. Her work allegedly included coordinating photo shoots, filing paperwork and even supervising other interns.

Unpaid internships became much more prevalent during the recession as companies sought to control salary and benefit costs by hiring a ready, willing and able pool of unpaid students seeking to build resumes. There are about 1.5 million interns hired every year, and more than half are unpaid positions, according to a USA Today story.

Employers with internship programs must meet six standards set by the U.S. Department of Labor to ensure the educational value of the program for the interns as well as guard against the displacement of regular workers. Unpaid interns, for example, must work under close supervision of a staff member. The unpaid position must also involve training and not simply benefit the company, and the work should not involve tasks that would otherwise be assigned to paid employees.

With the possibility of fewer training positions available this summer, young job hunters cannot afford to procrastinate. Many companies have already selected their summer interns or will soon be reviewing resumes and conducting interviews, so there’s not much time for an employer to know your name, let alone see your face.

If you are interviewing for a position, ask lots of questions: What will my duties be? Who will be my supervisor? Will there be opportunities for training in different departments?

Also, read the Labor Department rules. Most companies do the right thing, but as the lawsuits allege, there can be abuses.

There’s also a message for employers.

I suggest that if you don’t offer an internship, fill the void by setting up job shadowing sessions with interested students who could meet with top management and key employees of your company. Or, if you have an impressive intern applicant but no job to offer, use your network and make a call and forward the resume to a company where he or she might be a good fit for the summer. Try to open a door or two.

At the very least, take some interest. That’s all that many young job seekers are asking.

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