Unpaid Internships: Bad for Students, Bad for Workers, Bad for Society

Update: Read the rebuttal, In Defense of Unpaid Internships

The economics of unpaid internships are obvious. Employers are desperate for cheap work, and "free" is pretty cheap. Workers are desperate for, well, anything, and students and recent grads are willing to negotiate their wages down to zero. But the ethics aren't so clear-cut. If unpaid internships are the key to better jobs and bigger salaries, should we be concerned about the millions of lower-class students who can't afford to work for free?

Yesterday, I asked you to tell me your experiences and opinions about unpaid internships. Hundreds of you responded. Here is the first batch of answers -- against unpaid internships. Forthcoming today: in defense of working for free.

THE BIG PICTURE: The vast implications of a class that can afford to work for free

I think that it's important to consider the implications that all of this unpaid (and likely stemming from the upper-class) labor has on society as well, especially within the industries that largely require entire chunks of time and resources from those aspiring to join them. Particularly within the public sector, one glaring example of this is the field of legislative aide job opportunities that are often only handed out to those who have toiled away for months (and indeed sometimes years) on end as campaign volunteers.

This creates a setup where an entire profession (any job offering Congressional support) effectively shuts out the very large proportion of the college-aged population who do not have parents (or some other richer benefactor) that can afford to subsidize living costs for however long they need to gain the extensive and unpaid experience necessary to enter the good graces of a Congressman or Senator. The implications of this are far-reaching and structural; and reinforce the culture of privilege already rampant in Washington D.C. where not only do federal lawmakers themselves often lack valuable perspective on the issues plaguing lower- and middle class Americans that constitute the majority of the nation's citizenry, but also with the advisors and assistants working for them, who by virtue of being able to land their jobs in the first place already were fortunate enough to have been born into the nation's wealthy economic minority. This creates a cycle of dissonance between the real world economic reality that Americans face and what the legislative class in Washington understands the proper solutions are to those very problems.

'Unpaid internships cannot continue to exist'

Unpaid internships cannot continue to exist. It's really immoral.

  1. Not only is college ridiculously expensive, students are now required to spend their summers for no money? For example, in the broadcast industry, internships are concentrated in New York, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. The costs to move there and work for no money eliminates thousands of low-income students from what is essentially required to gain future employment after graduation. And the press wonders why their ranks are so often colorless. I literally did a clinical trial to pay for a summer I spent doing an internship. Which was fun but most people aren't so adventurous with medications they put in their body.

  2. The idea companies are paying to provide experience is nonsense. If a friend pays thousands of dollars to take a photoshop or HTML class in college, employers are getting free labor to utilize that skill. If the company was instructing students in photoshop, I'd see the value. But those skills are required to get the internship in the first place. So what is the point of learning a skill when it is being used for nothing? Companies that otherwise would have to pay a worker for that technical ability can utilize it for free. So, not only do students pay internship credits, pay for housing, they pay for the skill to work for free. That's wrong.

  3. In economics, people value what they pay for. When companies have a financial investment in someone, they are more inclined to gain a full return on that investment. If I'm a zombie on the 17th floor, anything I add is to their credit, but they have no risk if I'm not. Which is why its hard to differentiate between committed interns and lackluster ones. Companies have no real interest in an interns personal or professional development. But if they pay for that intern, they do. In a corporate environment, interns take ALL the risk, employers take none.

Unpaid interns 'lower wages for everyone'

My experience has been that they overall devalue the actual work being done, lowering wages for everyone, not just the unpaid interns. Furthermore the use of interns in general as draftsmen has all but eradicated a legitimate career path for high school graduates. - Evan MacKenzie

Unpaid internships are the new entry-level position

If internships still worked to give people valuable skills that they didn't have in exchange for some free labor I'd be all for that, but for the most part it seems people are looking for interns that come fully trained and with a lot of experience already. When the recession hit jobs that would have been well paid the year before turned into unpaid "internships." My wife was looking for work during that time, and it wasn't unusual for her to see ads on Craigslist like "Artist intern needed. MFA required. Must have minimum 5 years professional arc welding experience in shop environment. Must have proficiency with sanders and drill press and know how to crochet. Please bring portfolio and listing of everywhere your work has been shown. Must have network of gallery and "art world" contacts. Internship requires 6 month to 1 year commitment and is unpaid."

We would have chalked these things up as either ads from already famous, well established artists or so much Craigslist wishful thinking...but the thing was on the other end we worked with the people who were "hiring" the interns and they weren't anymore successful, and in some cases not even as successful as my wife's business was. There would be no paid job at the end of the tunnel for any of those interns, because the people who hired them didn't make any money. Yet they still didn't have a shortage of people willing to work for them for free, mostly because they wanted to have something they could put on their resume to show they had been "doing something" with their time.

'Nursing internships'!?'

Hospitals are jumping on board to the free-labor train with "Nursing Internships." They now prefer that you work anywhere from 4-12 weeks unpaid, then they'll consider you for employment. Total horsesh*t.

THIS IS KEY: The difference between an apprentice an intern

An apprentice would be taken into the master's household with food and shelter provided. That doesn't happen with unpaid internships. Only kids that have someone else to rely on for food and housing can take advantage of the opportunities provided.

I don't particularly care if colleges offer academic credit for internships. I would like to see them offer food and housing for kids that work internships when not in school. It would probably be counterproductive to require employers to do so, and the schools are already fleecing the kids because price signals are so poorly understood in education. Sack some administrators or something. Slow down campus renovation for a while. I imagine this would be about the cheapest way to improve outcomes for students a college could provide. - wjaredh

'The system works against class mobility'

The problem is not that the unpaid interns themselves necessarily get a bad deal, the problem is that the system works against class mobility.

Only the comparatively privileged can afford to make the "investment" of accepting an unpaid internship. I have several friends who had to give up their unpaid internships in order to work paid jobs elsewhere when they found they couldn't make ends meet.

Now as for the old-fashioned system of apprenticeship, I'm not really qualified to say whether they tended to increase class mobility or not. I know that in many fields the apprentices tended to come from the same social class as the "master", and that it was not unusual for the family of the apprentice to pay for the privilege of having their son work there. At the same time, such practices were not universal. I think it is clear though that in many cases the apprentices at least received room and board - something obviously not provided by most of today's unpaid internships.

I do think there is much to be said for the apprenticeship model of education. But that is separate from whether people are paid or not. Medical students in their residency are essentially apprentices, but they are paid. The same could be said of law clerks. - Lasker

The Labor Department's bizarre rules

Since one of my close relatives is about to begin an unpaid internship, in a situation with which I am very familiar, I was very interested in those Labor Dept. requirements. They boiled it down to a list of six criteria, most of which seem ... somewhat reasonable. Requirements 2, 3, 5, and 6 seem workable. Unpaid internships should be primarily for the benefit of the intern, closely supervised, not linked to a future job, and the terms of the internship should be clearly understood up front.

But requirements 1 and 4 seem mostly concerned with making sure the employer does not benefit in any way from the intern's services. These rules emphasize that "The internship ... is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment," and that "The employer ... derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern." In fact, it goes on to suggest that the employer's "operations may actually be impeded" by having the intern. How do we train someone in the skills necessary to do some sort of work without having them actually perform, at least on some level, that kind of work?

This seems absurd. We don't demand that actual colleges provide education without deriving "immediate advantage" from their students. They get paid MONEY for providing this training. Why is it somehow wrong for an employer to derive some benefit from providing valuable training to an intern? Would that not be similar to an "educational environment" where the student gives up something (MONEY) in order to receive training? Why can't an intern trade his or her time and effort in a similar way? The obvious answer is that they should be allowed to, which is why these internships exist.

I'm not against some kinds of safety precautions here - limits on hours, working conditions, that kind of thing. But insisting that employers provide the benefit of training to an intern while actively striving to eliminate any possibility of benefit to themselves? That is ridiculous.

WAKE UP, EVERYBODY: 'It absolutely is free labor'

I went to Smith College, and at least when I was there they had a program called "Praxis" which provided each student a $2,000 grant, one-time only, to compensate for unpaid work done over one summer during college. It's a start. I know it was implemented specifically to address the issue you raised here: that lower-income young people simply can't afford to take unpaid internships, and thereby miss out on some key stepping stones.

Overall, it's my experience as well that the legal guidelines for "internships" are a total joke. It absolutely IS free labor for the employers, and I wish the trend was heading more in the direction of shunning than normalizing.

How can progressives support free internships?

I actually got into a heated argument with senior management at my previous employer over this. My former boss (the organization's President) fancied himself as a progressive, so when it came time for us to hire summer interns I strongly advocated we pay them a reasonable hourly rate to make the opportunity accessible to those that don't have parents who can support them while they work for no pay. I was promptly shot down. It's not as if we didn't have the budget! $10-15/hour without any type of benefits is chicken-scratch. I would often spend more money on a single business-class ticket to China than paying an intern to work 20-hours a week for 3-months at $15/hour.

Nope, my old boss would rather spend no money so he could bring in wealthy interns from his ultra-expensive Alma mater. Progressive my ass...

'It is a crime to not pay your interns'

I graduated in December 2010 from the University of Oklahoma with a Bachelor's Degree in International and Area Studies. It's pretty obvious that if I wanted to do something related to my major, then I would have to move out of Oklahoma. I started searching for all kinds of internships in DC to "get my foot in the door". The more and more I looked, though, I noticed that none of these were paid internships. It caused a lot of stress in my life.

How could a person like me, from small town Oklahoma, afford to live in Washington, DC, where the average rent is more than my parents monthly house payment? And without any pay? I don't come from a privileged family and feel guilty when I ask them for money, even $20. I worked two jobs throughout college to pay for school, car insurance, and gas, among many other things. (I am proud to say that I graduated debt free, too) There was no way that I would be able to utilize the Mommy and Daddy Foundation, as so many people do out here. It really is a class thing. Sorry, but all these Georgetown kids who don't have to worry about funds and can get an internship on the Hill just doesn't seem fair to me. How are small town people, such as myself, ever going to get a chance to come out here if there is no way they can afford it?

I am fortunate and grateful to say, that I landed a paid internship in Washington, DC that recently turned into a full time job with a salary, health care and benefits- something the average 24 year old can't say. Every single day I entered my hours into my intern timesheet, I was so grateful that I was being paid and that I wasn't a burden on my family. I am one of the lucky ones. That said, I really feel like it is a crime to not pay your interns, especially in expensive cities such as Washington, DC or NYC.

'This is supply and demand'

This is Economics 101, where supply and demand curves intersect to determine the true price of an intern, zero. If the economy doesn't do better, this curve may even shift downward because of increased supply, meaning interns will have to pay for the privilege of working for companies.

If you don't care about the middle class, don't worry about unpaid internships

In the years since 2009, my pre-professional graduate program has eliminated about half of its paid assistant-ship positions for graduate students, positions that came with funding, gave grad students valuable work experience in the field that we're going into, and helped keep the departments we were working afloat financially (since we were doing work that would otherwise be done by fulltime workers with a degree). The work that those students used to do has been replaced by a combination of unpaid internships and, even more insidiously, for-credit practicum and independent study opportunities, where students pay the school for the chance to do labor that they would have been paid to do as recently as 2009, and that some of their peers are still getting paid to do. If you fail to get an assistant-ship and opt not to work for free, or not to pay for the privilege of working at some point during graduate school, you will probably not be able to find a job after you graduate because experience is now required for entry level positions.

The shift towards students paying the full price of their education (as state subsidies to universities decline and tuition goes up) and away from employers being willing to actually train their employees (even in skilled jobs that don't require a college degree it helps to have a certificate from a vocational high school or community college in the field you're going into), is a new phenomena in the last thirty years. It was not the system under which the baby boomers worked their way into the middle class. I think a trend where students increasingly have to either work for free or pay to work to get entrance into professional fields and jobs that require skilled labor will contribute to a combination of a decline in economic mobility and increased debt in the U.S. If your labor isn't rewarded with pay then you need to get money to live on elsewhere, and the two places most students turn are their parents (for those who already have opportunity and extra cash lying around) and loans. Some students do take on a second paid position to supplement their unpaid position, but that can increase their loan burden by making them stay in school longer and those students tend to have lower retention rates.

If you don't care about students from lower and moderate income backgrounds having the same opportunities as kids whose parents can afford to support them into college and graduate school, if you don't care about working yourself out of poverty and into the middle class being a real possibility for most people, if you don't care about US citizens taking on increasingly high levels of debt to finance their ability to work, then I would say don't worry about unpaid internships and decreasing state support for education. But if you do care about those things, then I think you should take a serious critical look at both phenomena.

'No one who believes in equal opportunity could support such a system.'

I'm a recent college graduate working in the sales department at a mid-sized company. I didn't know I wanted to be a writer when I was in college. I do now.

Unfortunately, you can't just practice writing, put together a portfolio, and then send off clips and resumes to prospective employers. An entry level writing gig, often even freelance work, requires prior experience and contacts, two things that an unpaid internship is perfect for obtaining.

However, I have school loans, rent, and utility bills to pay. The economy is still in a recession, at least for workers (if not their employers), and my hourly wage is adequate for living in a three bedroom apartment with three other people, but not much else. As a result, taking a few months off from my job, even if they would allow me to do so (which they wouldn't), would simply be unaffordable. Even after saving for nearly a year, working long but rewarding hours at an internship with one of the local media outlets just isn't financially practical.

I can of course continue to save, and eventually spring for 12 weeks of career forwarding servitude, but by that time I will be even older and at an even greater disadvantage. Every new season that goes by that many more people are getting a leg up in an extremely competitive field where every edge counts.

I would love to work for free to pursue the career I want. And an internship is a great way to do that. But far from being an egalitarian or meritocratic institution, unpaid internships unintentionally reinforce already existing socio-economic divisions. No one who believes in equal opportunity could support such a system.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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