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Career Services is bogged down with appointments earlier than usual this year. Even as snow continues to fall on Tappan Square, Oberlin students are trying to secure their summer plans, which in many cases means an unpaid internship. Recently, however, that go-to answer for “What are you doing after May?” has started to be contested in courtrooms and commentary pages across the country.

At the beginning of February, an Ohio State University alumna who served as an intern for over a year at Harper’s Bazaar filed a lawsuit accusing the Hearst Corporation of exploiting her full-time work doing various administrative tasks for the fashion magazine. Last year, two interns who had worked on the production of Fox Searchlight’s Black Swan (one of whom had recently graduated from Wesleyan University) began organizing a class-action lawsuit against the company they say violated the Department of Labor’s guidelines for employers offering unpaid internships.

The DOL issued the guidelines in April 2010, clarifying the distinction between educational internships versus trainee or entry-level employment, which must be compensated under minimum-wage and overtime laws. According to the agency, a genuine “internship experience is for the benefit of the intern,” and the company offering the opportunity “derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.” Arts and media companies have become especially dependent on the model to keep costs low, benefiting from the widespread perception that menial, thankless, money-losing work is just something newcomers have to suck up if they want to break into a desirable career.

Oberlin College’s policy on internships sends mixed messages. Career Services stipulates that students can only receive one credit for internships in which students work a minimum of 200 hours. We would point out that interning involves significantly more time and energy than students spend on an ExCos or athletics class. While internships done over Winter Term count as projects, students are required to pay a $50 fee to have summer experience approved for credit by the College and must also have their supervisors submit two performance evaluations. While it makes sense that Oberlin wants to know students’ work has legitimate educational value, the policy still puts students at the whim of a system telling them they ought to go out of their way to do real work for no money, paying out of personal (or parental) pocket to make it count for something.

Youth unemployment in the U.S. hovers around 18 percent, a number that draws a mix of reactions. One is outrage that companies are getting away with reclassifying as “interns” the people doing work that a decade or two ago would have earned them entry-level pay. Another is to shrug and say, “With my chances at getting a paying job that bad, I might as well get used to the idea of moving back in with my parents and try to at least gain a little experience.”

Will college students collectively decide to stop grinning and bearing what a New York Times blogger recently called the 21st-century equivalent of underpaid child labor in early 1900s coal mines? Will lawsuit results make unpaid internships a thing of the past? Either way, in a time when a bachelor’s degree is now basically a prerequisite to be considered for most kinds of work, and graduate school is quickly losing the edge it gives its attendees in the job market, the situation points to young adults spending longer and longer learning how to be good job candidates instead of good employees. Unless employers and the people formerly known as employees can forge a more sustainable and accessible path toward paid professional labor, we might as well give up on this notion of “meritocracy” and admit that the ability to spend the opening years of our adult lives with no paycheck is a necessary ingredient for success.

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