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The Sparking Controversy about Volunteer Internships

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There was a time when the word “intern” was used mainly for doctors-in-training. Over the last 50 years, however, the concept has widened to include many different experiences in nonprofit, government and for-profit settings. Some internships are formal requirements through university courses, while others are totally individual to the intern and the host organization. Some are paid (medical interns are considered staff), others are remunerated through stipends or living expenses, and many are totally volunteer and unpaid.

Right now there is growing opposition to unpaid internships in the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere. Opponents are quite vocal and have gained allies among labor unions and some politicians, taking their cause to the courts in an attempt to control internships or ban them outright. Among other things, these opponents state that internships: exploit the young adults seeking them; do not provide the training or professional development often promised; exclude those from low-income backgrounds who cannot afford to volunteer and forgo compensation; and benefit the recipient sponsors in ways that skirt labor and tax laws.

At the same, the volunteer field has grabbed onto the concept of internships as a great way to attract a wide range of new volunteers into roles with status and co-worker respect.

Which side is right? What – if anything – is clear cut and what is muddied or muddled? In this Points of View, authors Rob Jackson and Susan J. Ellis debate the issues and nuances of the internship dilemma.