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Furthermore! – Interns: Experience or Exploitation?

December 4, 2013

Furthermore

Furthermore! – Interns: Experience or Exploitation?

College graduates are increasingly finding not “jobs” but “internships” – temporary, often unpaid posts that promise “work experience.” Critics say internships exploit young workers … and reward wealth privilege. (More)

My BPI roving reporter gig is unpaid (unless you count macadamias). It’s a work-study program, to pay my tuition while I research my thesis on 21st Century Political Nuttitude. Or so they told me when I signed up. I later found out that BPI doesn’t charge tuition, and that news made me grumpy until I learned the staff and resident faculty are also unpaid (unless you count wine books). I guess if we’re all in the same boat that’s okay.

It’s one thing if a bunch of in-and-just-out-of-college get together to pool their efforts and resources and start a company in the metaphorical garage. They know they won’t get paid at first, but they also know they’ll own the business if it succeeds. If not, well, it’s time to go look for a regular job … or it used to be.

More and more, though, college graduates aren’t getting regular jobs. Instead, as Salon intern Jacob Sugarman wrote in 2011, they’re getting “internships” – temporary and often unpaid ‘training’ positions:

Internships used to be paid gigs at blue-chip companies that focused on training and recruitment. It was considered a marker of a good internship program that it hired between 50 and 70 percent of its workers to full-time jobs. Today, people sometimes have to do five or six internships in order to land the work they’re ultimately looking for. You also have a number of companies that are freezing future hires or simply replacing their paid employees with interns. The recession has definitely exacerbated the problem. According to one study, there was a 21 percent drop in paid internships after the economic crisis began in 2008. We’re at a turning point where the traditional use of these jobs as humane, white-collar apprenticeships and recruiting tools is being phased out. As a result, the violations of labor law are becoming more and more egregious.

By law, interns who are paid less than minimum wage must be in training positions that provide no direct benefit to the company. But in practice, Sugarman wrote, “Whether it means making Xeroxes or writing speeches for senators, interns are always expected to contribute to the bottom line.”

And as Sugarman noted at the top of that piece, unpaid interns also write stories for Salon. On Monday, Vice’s Charles Davis reported that most progressive news sites use unpaid interns. Davis’ list includes Mother Jones, American Progress, Democracy Now, and The New Republic. He also notes that Salon prefers ‘interns’ who already have professional writing experience:

“Some professional experience is required,” says a listing for an editorial internship at Salon. If you get that job, you’ll be helping “research, report, write and produce our news and culture coverage,” which sounds a lot like a job. The position, based in New York City, is unpaid.

NewsbustersTim Graham made hay with the hypocrisy of progressive news outlets arguing for an increased minimum wage while paying interns nothing. But the practice isn’t limited to progressive news outlets, or even the media. According to Osahh Aimiuwu at The Mass Media, Boston University’s independent student newspaper, the percentage of college students taking on internships jumped from 9% to 80% from 1992 to 2008.

Many companies offer more internships than they have job openings, transforming a ‘trainee’ position into a second-stage job application where a half-dozen or more interns work for free while competing for one or two paying jobs. Many young adults find they have to work several ‘internships’ – a year or more of unpaid labor – to land a paid position. And as Davis emphasizes, such unpaid internships reward the children of privilege:

The problem with unpaid internships is that interns are people, and in capitalist economies people generally must work for money in order to obtain food and shelter. While I managed to pull it off, a lot of those who want to become journalists aren’t lucky enough to be born white and middle class. My family had enough money to support my stupid “dream,” while others, many no doubt more talented and deserving than I, were barred from even trying because they were too poor to work for nothing.

But The New Republic’s Luke O’Neil is fine with that, for young reporters, because he says their work is worthless anyway:

[Tim] Kreider is right that it is insulting to be told what you do is worthless, but sadly it’s also often an accurate estimation, and one many young would-be writers need to hear. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” as a young person who knew a thing or two about existential crises and confusing job prospects once proclaimed, but that sort of thinking also applies to the idea of your creative labor. A piece of work is neither inherently good nor bad unless it is assigned value. Unfortunately for the contemporary writer, this is an externally defined judgment, not an internal one. Of course you think what you’ve written is great: You wrote it. But if your work was worth money someone would probably be paying you for it.
[...]
As much as I’d like to see a system that fairly compensates people for their writing, particularly from publications that can well afford it, nothing short of a complete revolution in the way media is consumed is going to change the fact that people simply don’t want to pay for the things they read or listen to or watch anymore. So how should a young writer approach this dilemma more practically then? “One for them, one for me” is an adage you often hear from film actors, and it makes sense for the burgeoning writing professional as well. Taking a hard line on giving your work away for free will do you no favors at the onset of a career, so it’s important to strike a balance. Don’t give it all away, but recognize when you’re not going to be able to get most of it placed any other way. No one is going to come asking for more of your work unless it’s out there for them to stumble upon in the first place.

That’s a great business model for The New Republic, whose owner has a net worth of $600 million. It’s also a great system to make sure our media and other professions perpetuate and speak for wealth privilege.

But for the children of working-class families, graduating with student loans and unable to work six months or more for free, unpaid internships are not a stepping stone but a locked door. And back in June a federal judge agreed, ruling that Fox Searchlight films should have paid two film student ‘interns’ whose duties consisted of “menial tasks” that contributed nothing to their educations:

Instead, the judge forcefully called for following criteria that the Department of Labor has laid out for unpaid internships. Those rules say unpaid internships should not be to the immediate advantage of the employer, the work must be similar to vocational training given in an educational environment, the experience must be for the benefit of the intern and the intern’s work must not displace that of regular employees.

While that case applied only to student interns, look for graduates who find themselves in unpaid ‘second-stage application’ internships to follow up with similar lawsuits. Conservatives – and progressive media outlets that use unpaid interns – will doubtless argue this will only hurt young adults by taking away chances to gain experience … the same argument conservatives make against increasing the minimum wage.

I guess I should be glad I get those macadamias, and the stray pecans from Chef’s pecan danish ring. It turns out I get ‘paid’ as much as a lot of interns at major publications. And I get to stay at Árbol Squirrel.

Good day and good nuts

2 Responses to “Furthermore! – Interns: Experience or Exploitation?”

  1. addisnana Says:

    This situation is deplorable. It favors the children of privilege and locks less than affluent graduates into a cycle of low wage jobs with little future career or earnings growth if they can find them.

    This ought to be illegal. It is about the only way to stop the practice.

    I have sent a link to my two senators.

  2. winterbanyan Says:

    Unpaid internships are disgusting. It is the use of valuable labor to improve a corporate bottom line, and there’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for the intern.

    This does indeed lock doors to the less-well-off and what’s more, it’s taking advantage of those who are. No one should work for free, unless it is to benefit themselves. To do it for the benefit of cheapskate companies taking advantage of the young appalls me.

    This is a truly revolting state of affairs.