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A Solution to the Unemployment Problem … errrr … Sort Of

July 15, 2009 — Just back from a week out of the office for the July 4 holiday. I was able to get out of the scorching Arizona heat for a short visit Huntington Beach in California and then the snow of the Rockies for a few more days. I was also able to catch up on some magazines and read a good book called Everything Bad Is Good For You by Steven Johnson (no relation to me), which I will probably blog about one of these days.

Anyway, I came back yesterday (Tuesday) to discover two similar articles, one in The Washington Post and the other in The Wall Street Journal. On Sunday July 12, the Post's Vickie Elmer wrote an article called "The Unpaid Payoff of a Between Jobs Job," which suggested that if you're unemployed and tired of waiting for the job market to get better, it might be a good idea to take an unpaid internship to help fill in any gaps in the resume or in your skill set.

At first blush, projecting myself into the situation, the concept was a bit hard to swallow for me. Like most people in the workforce, I have a couple of mouths to feed at home, the proverbial mortgage payment, bills, etc. So how would I be able to possibly afford to do something like this? But the WSJ article written by Sarah E. Needleman ("Starting Fresh With an Unpaid Internship") took the concept a step further, pointing out that people who take unpaid internships can obviously continue to collect unemployment benefits while maintaining a non-secretive job search, and further — in some cases — employers have even provided benefits such as free coffee, lunch, wellness/gym privileges, and covering commuting expenses. (An anecdote in the WSJ article said that one employer had paid for a $600 training course for an intern, which of course is good news to those of us who work in organizations that produce training courses and products!)

Although full time paid employment would obviously be a better solution for the worker, this concept really seems like a win-win to me. The unemployed worker isn't sitting around the house feeling sorry for him/herself, plus he or she is gaining new skills that can be put on the resume. Meanwhile, the employer is getting some nicely seasoned individuals to work for free — and, of course they hold the option to hire these folks when the economy starts to recover.

Putting on my workspan editor hat now, I'm curious if anybody out there is currently doing this from either the employer or employee perspective (or know of anyone doing this)? Anybody see any downsides here?

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of WorldatWork.

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Wed July 15, 2009 8:31 PMReport Abuse
E Brennan
Senior Associate
Member Since: 4/19/1979
Comments: 590

Sorry, but Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor's decision in the Archie v. Grand Central Partnership case might nix that proposal.  If there was work done connected with interstate commerce and if any regular employees did the same things, it could be considered employment and minimum wages and FLSA overtime would be due.

Seems like it has to be essentially nonproductive makework directly connected to academic course assignments to evade that pitfall.  Around the middle of the last article, you find the following statement: 

To avoid legal complications, some employers limit unpaid internships to college students receiving school credit. Last spring, Ashley Biever enrolled in a continuing-education program at the University of California, Los Angeles, primarily to qualify for an internship.

No bar to paid internships exist, to my knowledge.