Thursday, July 25, 2013

Unpaid internships are exploitative, classist bull$#!+

Over the past few years, unpaid internships have popped up everywhere, often seemingly replacing what had previously been jobs that adult people with paid vacations did. Plenty of people have gone into great detail about how unpaid internships are exploitative and usually don’t lead to jobs, but let’s say they do. If working for free is a requirement to get a job that pays, I’ll make the case that that arrangement is even worse.
My compensation is a thing I also have to pay for? Super cool, bro!

To start, there’s the obviously exploitative nature of the internship. At its very best, you are learning a skill in much the same way that an indentured servant in a colonial print shop would. Sure, at the end you will have the skillset to open your own shop (if you can somehow acquire the capital after not working for so long. Maybe you can borrow $20,000 from your parents?), but in the meantime, your boss made a bunch of profit having you do a bunch of stuff he either a. should have been able to pay you at least minimum wage for, or b. couldn’t afford to pay you minimum wage for because his business model doesn’t bring in enough profit for the required labor. At worst (and I’ve seen this done many times) someone doesn’t want to do something in an office or a “start-up,” and so they say “we can just get an intern for that.” The company fills out some paper work, the intern packs and sends mailers or orders, and at the end, they both lie to a university and pretend the kid learned something about marketing.

But let’s say the company looking for interns is honest and really trying to give their neo-apprentices valuable skills. Great. Who can take advantage of those opportunities? In most cases, the intern is required to be enrolled at a college or university and do the internship for credit in lieu of a class. This means that, when a good student is not in class or studying, she will be working at an internship. What gives? The time to have a job that actually pays you.

Remember these assholes?
It’s a noble idea that people don’t have to work while they are in college. In practice, that idea is wildly classist. Students who are not from wealthy families and don’t want to be crushed by private student loan debt (which they get shamed for taking) have no choice but to work their way through school to at least pay their living expenses. You can make the “live with your parents” argument, but that assumes that all students have parents that will let them live at home, and that that home is anywhere near a college or university. No problem in Massachusetts. Sort of a problem in a lot of other places. If it’s between the unpaid internship that might assist in getting a job some day or working at a coffee shop to pay for rent and food, there’s not much of a choice there. The kid who needs to work can’t take an unpaid internship and dedicate an appropriate amount of time to her school work.

Who does this leave to take said internships? Let’s not split hairs. It’s privileged (and mostly white) kids. This practice inherently gives wealthier kids an advantage over their moderate- and lower-income classmates. This perpetuates class division through generations and while it doesn’t totally eliminate opportunity (I got a job in my field without ever doing an unpaid internship), it’s a significant handicap.

For the unfettered capitalists reading (I think you’re on the wrong blog. You might like this one better), this inequality isn’t just unfair to the poor kids. It’s also unfair to the employers. By placing a restriction that most good internships could remedy without any serious change to their profits, companies are missing out on loads of talent that they never get to interview because those kids don’t even bother applying. You just hired some kid who probably is going to work for his dad (your competition) when he’s done. Meanwhile, your ideal future Assistant Director of Blickidy-blop is making your macchiatos.

To me, the solution here is obvious. There are ways to make federal work-study money go to paying for interns. These programs should be expanded, better funded, and “need qualifications” should be reworked. Employers should have to apply for the money along with students, and should have to match it. Past this, all unpaid internships should be made illegal, or at least prohibited from being used as college credit for universities that benefit from non-profit status.

In an age where tuition costs are going through the roof, public colleges and universities are getting budgets cut, where qualified academics don’t have job stability and are forced to hop from campus to campus on adjunct assignments, making them difficult for their students to reach and work with, and where student loans are getting more expensive, we need to make improvements. We need to invest in the training of our future employees. The government can’t do it all. If private enterprise wants good and capable workers, they need to pay with more than their expert guidance to train them. 


Lindsay said...

Mid-day with Dan Rodericks (local NPR affiliate show) spent an hour on this topic this week! It was the Tuesday show, if you're interested in looking it up.

But yea, I agree. I was lucky to be in a hard science, and my now-husband was in engineering, so our co-ops were always paid. But I see the squeeze applied to lots of professions - you have to have experience, but no one will hire you for a paid position without experience.

Matthew Wilding said...

Thanks for letting me know about that, Lindsay. I'll look into that episode. I hadn't heard it.

Also, thanks for reading and commenting. Hope to see you again.

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