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With jobs scarce to come by, US grads turn to internships

business Updated: May 06, 2012 20:37 IST

Confronting the worst job market in decades, many US college graduates who expected to land paid jobs are turning to unpaid internships to try to get a foot in an employer's door.

While unpaid postcollege internships have long existed in the film and non-profit worlds, they have recently spread to fashion houses, book and magazine publishers, marketing companies, public relations firms, art galleries, talent agencies - even to some law firms.

Melissa Reyes, who graduated from Marist College with a degree in fashion merchandising last May, applied for a dozen jobs to no avail. She was thrilled, however, to land an internship with the Diane von Furstenberg fashion house in Manhattan. "They talked about what an excellent, educational internship programme this would be," she said.

But Reyes soon soured on the experience. She often worked 9am to 9pm, five days a week. "They had me running out to buy them lunch," she said. "They had me cleaning out the closets, emptying out the past season's items."

Although many internships provide valuable experience, some unpaid interns complain that they do menial work and learn little, raising questions about whether these positions violate federal rules governing such programmes.

Yet interns said they often have no good alternatives. As Friday's jobs report showed, job growth is weak, and the unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds was 13.2% in April.

The Labor Department said that if employers do not want to pay interns, internships must resemble vocational education and their work cannot be used as a substitute for regular employees.

But in practice, there is little to stop employers from exploiting interns. The department rarely cracks down on offenders, saying it has limited resources and that unpaid interns are loath to file complaints for fear of jeopardising any future job search.

No one keeps statistics on the number of college graduates taking unpaid internships, but there is widespread agreement that the number has significantly increased, not least because the jobless rate for college graduates age 24 and under has risen to 9.4%, the highest level since the government began keeping records in 1985.

"A few years ago you hardly heard about college graduates taking unpaid internships," said Ross Eisenbrey, a vice-president at the Economic Policy Institute who has done several studies on interns. "But now I've even heard of people taking unpaid internships after graduating from Ivy League schools."