Unpaid internships are an almost unavoidable part of a student’s transition into the sport industry. Many sport management programs mandate an internship as part of the degree requirements, and it is part of the sport management accreditation process. With that in mind, the NY Times article “Growth of Unpaid Internships May Be Illegal” caught my eye (HT: Patrick Gettings).
According to US labor laws, unpaid internships have to meet certain criteria, such as being educational (not just grunt work), not replacing the role of existing employees, being at the benefit of the trainee, and possibly even inhabiting workplace efficiency (yes, really). The Times article calls attention to the increase in unpaid internships, particularly as the economy has tightened budgets.
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,” said Nancy J. Leppink, the acting director of the department’s wage and hour division.
This isn’t to say that sport internships are a problem. In fact, sport organizations have a long history with internships and should be familiar with the procedure. Most student interns receive course credit (an acceptable trade-off in lieu of pay) and the leanness of sport organizations means that interns are exposed to many parts of the business–even if their work is menial, it’s still educational. That said, there are still many sport internships positions that run afoul of the law, and it’s important for student and university internship coordinators to be very cognizant of the relevant issues.
The article also raised a point to which I’m particular sensitive: unpaid internships are economically biased. Many people can’t afford to take an unpaid internship, which hinders their prospects for future employment. Those who are well-off, or can be supported by their parents, can afford to gain valuable work experience and connections through by unpaid internships. These jobs make the students more attractive to employers once the students enter the job market. Unpaid internships do not help break the poverty cycle, nor do they help diversify the socioeconomic make-up of sport organizations. I think SBJ had an article on this issue about a year ago, and though I couldn’t find that one, I did find some others.