Q. Many successful firms hire summer interns. These dedicated volunteers are generally of significant value to the firms, yet are paid nothing. Is this fair to the youngsters?
A. There is certainly something paradoxical about internships. The law forbids hiring workers for below minimum wage, but allows employers to hire them for nothing! This may be understandable in the context of a non-profit organization, which solicits donations. But the wealthy business firms which engage summer interns are hardly in need of voluntary support.
However, there actually is an important logic behind this institution. One of the most valuable assets a young person brings to the job market is experience. Even a few weeks as an intern in a well-known firm provides valuable exposure to the environment and culture of business, and the backlog of willing volunteers shows that the young people feel they are getting adequate recompense via experience and the addition to their resume.
The logic of internship is dictated by a number of considerations. One is the short-term nature of the work. Small businesses with high turnover are often accustomed to hiring workers for short periods of time, but the kind of firms that employ interns usually create a strong mutual commitment with workers and seek only employees interested in a prolonged working relationship. It's not worth changing this orientation in order to provide pay for a few dozen summer interns. Another consideration is that these interns often make significant demands on managers. While it is true that companies actively solicit interns, it is also true that universities sponsoring student internship programs actively solicit sponsors, who are sometimes reluctant to take responsibility for students who are sometimes outstanding employees but sometimes can turn out to be dead weight or worse.
Jewish tradition acknowledges the importance of workplace learning. The Talmud makes frequent reference to a "shulia," or apprentice. The relationship of an apprentice to the workman is not an ordinary employee-employer relationship; the master workman is almost like a parent. The reason is that the apprentice is learning a valuable skill, and giving someone the means to earn a livelihood is an important mitzvah (commandment) in Judaism.
The book of Ecclesiastes (9:9) tells us: "See life with the wife you love". (Today we might translate this, "Live it up!") The Talmud comments, "This likens life [i.e., livelihood] to a wife," and concludes: just as parents need to provide their children with the social skills and standing to establish a durable marriage, they must provide their children with the skills they require to make a living. (1) (It is instructive which is learned from which: in Talmudic times, it was taken for granted that parents appreciated the importance of educating their children for stable family life. They needed to be reminded about the importance of making money.)
For this reason, the employer of an apprentice has the legal status of an educator, not an employer. The Talmud explains that this is precisely because the employer is teaching him a livelihood. (2)
By the same token, firms who take on short-term interns with an express commitment to provide them with skills and experience that will serve them in future jobs should be considered educators, with the corresponding responsibilities and simultaneously with a legitimate exemption from the need to pay.
SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud tractate Kiddushing 30b. (2) Babylonian Talmud tractate Makkot 8b.
The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.