Work Is Work: Why Free Internships Are Immoral

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The last word on unpaid students

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Reuters

This summer, millions of students -- some graduating, some between school years -- will spend the summer working. Some will work at restaurants and on retail floors, where working is called "working." Some will work at think tanks and non-profit organizations, where working is called "interning." Estimates put the number of unpaid interns every year between 500,000 and one million. So, in a country where working for free is mostly illegal, a student population somewhere between the size of Tucson and Dallas will be working for free, in plain view.

A few years ago, I was a proud part of unpaid intern nation. I took unpaid internships at two think tanks, a campaign and a magazine. Were they useful? Definitely. Were they moral? Harder question.

Last week, I solicited comments on the dubious morality of unpaid internships. Hundreds of you responded. One large group spoke out in defense of unpaid internships. The other called them bad for students, bad for workers, and bad for society. I do not consider this an easy question. The lines between externships, volunteered time, education-on-the-job, and real work are not drawn in bright neon colors. But I'm coming down in the second camp: Unpaid internships aren't morally defensible.

WORK vs. EDUCATION

Are internships indistinguishable from education? If they are, it's perfectly permissible that they be unpaid. Education doesn't pay salaries to students. Students aren't paid to take Psych 101. They're not paid to apply to graduate school. More than 90% of employers think that students should have between one and two internships before they graduate, according to a new study from research by Millennial Branding and Experience, Inc. Internships have become an inextricable part of the college experience and a pre-req for post-graduate employment.

But this presents a Catch-22 for lower-income students who want to work in politics, research, journalism, non-profits, or other industries that traffic in unpaid internships. These students need work that pays money, but they also need an internship to work in the field. As a result, poorer students are at permanent disadvantage in the summer internship market ... unless, as many of you suggested, we force schools to pay interns with credits or stipends.

But this outcome is unsatisfactory. Cash-strapped schools already face declining public funding. Now they're supposed to pay employers for work done by students? Surely, some colleges could do more to recognize the value of internships and improve their career services offices. But they shouldn't be in the job of paying other companies' salaries.

It's all well that unpaid internships are -- as a few commenters pointed out -- "better for students than actual college." But that's not a good reason to deny millions of workers salaries just because they're young. Plenty of entry-level positions better prepare people for work than college. If it is relevant that an unpaid internship is "useful", does it follow that only useless internships should have salaries? Of course not. Utility and salary have nothing to do with one another.

A JOB BY ANY OTHER NAME

An overwhelming number of unpaid internships are jobs by another name. We accept that they are not salaried because they are temporary, because the work is done by students, and, not insignificantly, for the simple reason that we choose to call them internships -- a position we've come to consider unpaid.

If you have worked in the Washington, D.C., research or non-profit sector, you know that often the roles of an intern and, say, a research assistant overlap. The reason that companies pay one and not the other is that they know they can get away with it. A 19-year old student has little bargaining power, especially if she wants to work in an industry where unpaid internships are the norm. ("If you don't pay me, I'll go to that other magazine that has better muffins," is not a strong negotiating stance.)

For hundreds of thousands of students a year, the status quo is fine. It is mutually beneficial to an affluent student and a cash-strapped firm for work to be done for free, in exchange for the possibility of a job or recommendation in the future.

But not every mutually beneficial relationship should be legal, and not every one is. An easy example is: It is mutually beneficial for a 17-year old to offer money to a bartender in exchange for a vodka shot, but we have collectively decided that this sort of thing ought not to happen, because we don't want to live with its broader effects. The broader effects of unpaid internships are (a) a tendency for employers to take advantage of young labor by offering the currency of experience in lieu of actual currency, and (b) a widening of the social inequality gap as lower-income students are implicitly barred from this so-called  "educational" experience, which is their gateway to full-employment in the field of their choosing.

The Labor Department's guidelines require that internships must resemble an education rather than a job; that interns cannot work in the place of paid employees; and that their work not be of "immediate benefit" to an employer. If you've ever had an unpaid internship, you know that these rules are flouted more routinely than speed limits. But rather than hold up these rules as quixotic laws begging to be violated and laughed at, ask yourself three questions:

(1) Is there no overlap between paid and unpaid work at your company? (2) Can you deny that unpaid internships deny to low-income students an experience that many employers consider mandatory? (3) Would a minimum wage salary paid to a handful of students compromise your company's financial position? I cannot imagine an honest person with passing knowledge of unpaid internships in America answering any of those three questions "yes."

Work is work, no matter who does it. It ought to be paid.


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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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