US judge rules all interns should be paid: does this help or hurt job seekers?

New ruling demands that film production company compensate interns, threatening a longstanding industry practice.

It's been a staple of the career-development process for decades -- young people or career-switchers taking on internships, often unpaid -- to gain experience and visibility in the professions of their choice.

Photo credit: Joe McKendrick

The experience gained from a summer or semester of interning is invaluable, with on-the-job training in actual settings. Internships also provide networking opportunities, and often are converted into full-time jobs.

However, there has been growing concern that internships represent a source of exploited labor for businesses. Student internships, for example, must now result in bona fide course credits, and there continue to be calls that all such programs must include compensation.

The legal system also is also now cracking down on unpaid internships.  The New York Times reports that a federal judge just ruled against a movie production company, alleging that the company "had violated federal and New York minimum wage laws by not paying production interns, a case that could upend the long-held practice of the film industry and other businesses that rely heavily on unpaid internships."

The Times report estimates that there are more than one million internships a year in the U.S. alone, about half of which are unpaid. Legal experts quoted in the article say the recent ruling is putting a chill on corporate internship programs.

For many, unpaid internships have been a step up, offering a way to get involved with working in their field and to gain some visibility. But if companies are required to pay all interns, the doors to such programs may close.

Unpaid work is often part and parcel of career advancement. Throughout their careers, many professionals provide their own time and services (and even money) to help run associations, participate in or organize conferences, deliver presentations, write book chapters and articles, and even write software -- just to name a few examples. The reward is visibility and network connections.

For that matter, how about all those people who volunteer to work set numbers of hours each week at hospitals, libraries or parks?  Is this essentially the same thing as an "unpaid internships"?

Should uncompensated work intended to boost one's standing in a profession start at the beginning of a career path in the form of internships? Or have some companies been exploiting this source of free labor for far too long?

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