Internship Opportunity or Labor Law Violation?

Are you a student? Are you opinionated and interested in how a startup works? Are you between the ages of 13 and 19 and willing to work unpaid? Well, then do I have an offer for you! Squawk Mobile Inc. is looking for teen interns to help launch their iPhone messenger app. All you have to do is use their app as your primary form of communication and attend monthly meetings where they attempt to bottle your youth for profit. More so, if you happen to have marketing or coding skills, they’re willing to offer you a more permanent after-school position where you perform the job of an adult for free! How cool is that?

Okay, so I’m being a bit snarky, but I find this whole thing a little repulsive. First, let’s start with how it’s illegal. You see, the United States has these things called labor laws which require that laborers be paid a minimum wage for their work. For an internship to be exempt from minimum wage laws, the position must “be structured for the intern’s benefit and should not displace regular workers. The employer also should not derive immediate advantages from the intern’s activities.” Squawk’s teen interns are displacing adult employees who would otherwise be performing market research, product development and coding. Squawk not only benefits immediately via the children’s work, but also long-term if the product succeeds. As we’ve all seen via The Social Network, the CEOs of this company stand to make millions, while the children leave with nothing more than an extra-curricular for their college applications.

In addition to the fact that this specific internship program is illegal, I have a major issue with the system of unpaid internships in general. When I started college I was told by my advisors that I would need to complete at least two internships in order to be considered for jobs when I graduated. Why would someone hire a girl with zero experience over someone who has worked two jobs in the field? Makes sense. With the job market being what it is and the never ending pool of students willing to work for free, the vast majority of internships are unpaid. The rationale being that the company is offering you the opportunity to learn, gain experience and strengthen your resume in exchange for your work. Seems fair enough, right?

Well, maybe not. When companies hire unpaid interns, students who cannot afford to work for free are at a disadvantage. While students with families willing and able to support them through their unpaid internships rake in the benefits, others fall behind. The girl who works two jobs to pay her way through school graduates with less opportunities than the girl whose family foots the bill for her three summers of full-time unpaid work. This is the opposite of fair.

We complain about the lack of diversity in television, film and journalism, but then we support a system that keeps those from under-privileged backgrounds from success in these fields. While many smaller companies have their intern’s best interest at heart, allowing them to work part-time and coordinate their schedules around paying jobs, there are still many multi-million dollar companies hiring college students and new grads to perform full-time positions unpaid. It’s not that these companies can’t afford to pay their employees, it’s that they know they don’t have to. Why pay someone for a job that ten others would be willing to do for free? I think we need to start holding companies accountable for treating their employees fairly and stop startup companies from using children for profit.

What do you think, guys? Is Squawk wrong for recruiting teen interns? Is there a way to compensate the kids if the company takes off? What about unpaid internships in general? Is there always a way to make it work even if you “can’t afford” to work unpaid? Sound off in the comments!