Thursday, March 1, 2012

Should unpaid internships be repugnant? (Many are already illegal...)

The NY Times hosts a debate: most of the debaters think the answer is "yes": Do Unpaid Internships Exploit College Students?

Alex Peysakhovich writes
"I talked to a friend of mine who is in the music recording business about this. He started work in a studio as an unpaid intern (for about 6 months) then got hired onto the staff. For reference: they usually have about 3-4 interns and 1-2 staff in the studio during business hours, so most of their labor hours come in from free sources (but it counts as training since interns do most of the tech work).

"He gave me the "well, that's how the business works... if they want to enter the business they need to put in the time." He didn't really buy the "lots of unpaid internships are exploitative" arguments making the, very economist point, that they're giving a chance to let the interns signal their actual interest and ability.

"How much of this is selection (he thought it was ok so he did it) vs how much is "it's hard to make a man understand something when his paycheck depends on him not understanding it," I'm not sure."


Jane said...

I am mentoring unpaid and low paid interns and am struggling with the morality of it, it would be ok I think if they got employment out of it. I worked for free myself back in the last recession so I understand it but it still does not sit easy with me. glad I am not alone in my struggle

Highgamma said...

Repugnance is fascinating. In your example of a recording studio, if they were forced to pay for their interns, they probably would just hire one. Therefore, in order to compete for that very desirable job, potential employees with high incomes would take special training classes or rent out studio space, etc. These potential employees would then interview much better than the lower income students who cannot afford this. Young people from more wealthy families will do better than those who do not come from such families.

However, when an internship counts as college credit and lower income students have financial aid, the playing field is made more level. (The college at which I work also has scholarships for low income students who need help getting internships. These pay for room and board during the summer.) Then, at least, lower income students stand a chance. I guess we should get rid of unpaid internships and make sure that the rich kids have an overwhelming advantage getting jobs in these fields. It's the only "ethical" thing to do. Wouldn't want to exploit those poor kids, ya know.

Lorin Schneider said...

When an unpaid internship is nothing more than an employer's play for free labor, definitely.

@Jane, You're definitely not alone in being troubled by this practice...While I think there can be legitimate unpaid internships that are truly about training and education, the system is rife with abuse. There are hundreds of thousands of employers who use "unpaid interns" as nothing more than a source of free labor (and they're only able to do that because the market is so tough right now)--there is a lot of exploitation going on under the name of "unpaid internships" (I would know--I'm an attorney whose practice is exclusively in representing illegally unpaid interns and some of the stories I hear are simply egregious).

@Highgamma, you raise an interesting point about unpaid internships and economic mobility...economists are actually pointing to unpaid internships as one of the causes of increased economic disparities/class divides. Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute recently wrote about this topic:

Highgamma said...

Lorin, do you have any link that provide data on this phenomenon, especially ones that distinguish between internship for college students versus non-college students. The link that you provides seems to contain more assertion than data.

Jane said...

highgamma - for me the difficulty is that we are replacing real jobs with interns who will have to go abroad to find work, I am contributing to the improvement of the economy of another country and not my own country, I love being able to help them learn and develop their skills, also it is only those that can afford to work for free/low pay that benefit, this does in fact increase the disparity in class as it prevents the very poor from taking a low paid internship rather than a slightly higher paid, but still poorly paid, job . In utopia there would be full equality but we live in an imperfect world and i do my beat to give the interns as broad and experience as possible so that they can find well paid employment and then wonder if the whole new practice of internship here is just another way of perpetuating the race to the bottom.

lorin- I still struggle with the morality of it , but the enthuism of the interns and their willingness to learn is refreshing after the why do i have to work hard attitude of the celtic tiger years, on balance i will wait for anther year to see what happens with the current crop to form a final decision on it, internship is very new here and hard to know how it will work out yet, I choose to participate in this as I think it will benefit people, but it does so at the expense of others as with everything

Yoni said...

Highgamma, finding data to support Lorin's assertions can be challenging to support because few, if any, have really tried to collect data on this topic. The National Association of Colleges and Employers stated in their 2011 Student Survey, "Unfortunately, no one has tracked the number of unpaid internships on a national level over time."

However, their 2011 survey was the first time NACE asked students whether their internships were paid or unpaid, and found that while paid internships at for-profit companies had the best chance of producing a full-time job offer, students with unpaid internships did worse in getting full-time job offers regardless of the type of organization with which they held the internship. Faced with the data they collected they had to try to explain why their data found that all of the unpaid internships, regardless of the sector in which they took place, were connected with a median salary offer below that which a student without any internship experience received.

Ultimately, they find no definitive reason for why unpaid internships did not provide an advantage to students in offers or salary.

I wrote a whole blog post about this very issue at