Monday, March 28, 2011

Less Than Slavery: Unpaid Internships

A very depressing and poignant consequence of our nation's Education Arms Race and college graduate overproduction is employers' growing expectation that college graduates should slave away at unpaid internships.  This is like adding insult to injury.  It is no longer sufficient to invest four years in college and tens of thousands of dollars to prove that you are serious about working in a field and building a career.  Now you need to work for free.  In economic terms, people with college degrees and often advanced and professional degrees are now a dime-a-dozen and the base ability to perform white collar labor no longer has much value.

As people graduate into glutted fields, they seek out these unpaid internships in the desperate hopes of maintaining their employability and the value of their college degrees.  Sadly, many if not most interns will probably fail to find work in their fields.  It's easy to understand why people do it, and I don't blame them, but often they are just prolonging having to face reality while their hopes for middle class lives die slowly.  The competition for good internships has become so bad that various sources have reported that some people are even paying money to work for free!

I have always taken offense to this notion that college graduates should work for free.  They've paid their tuition, they've done their time, and they're ready to contribute.  Perhaps decades ago it wasn't so awful.  In the past, perhaps people were able to obtain career-building employment through internships, but today it seems like they are just providing free labor.  It's somewhat understandable that employers would prefer to hire people who are working for free as opposed to moping around at home unemployed.  Sadly, this social convention is victimizing hordes of unemployed and underemployed people. 

If unpaid internships no longer provide a high chance of obtaining career-building employment in your field, then they are worse than slavery.  At least slaves receive room and board.  Interns only receive pats on the head while they pile on credit card and student loan debt.  Modern day internships may thus be a form of neo-slavery imposed on unemployed and underemployed college graduates by our social conventions.  This is just another aspect of our nation's decreasing quality of life and transformation into a third world country.

EDIT: For clarification, I don't deny that it's better to be a free intern than to be a slave.  Slavery is a horrible thing and the suffering you might experience as an intern does not in any way compare to the suffering of being an actual slave.  However, from a strictly economic perspective, it seems to me that a slave receives more compensation.  That is not to say that it is good compensation or desirable compensation or that anyone would prefer to be an actual slave over an intern.  I'm just saying that unless an unpaid internship leads to an actual job, a slave, or at least most slaves, receive more compensation in the form of some sort of food and shelter.  My intention with this post was not to comment on slavery, but on unpaid internships.  I hope this additional paragraph clarifies the context of my post for people who might wish to take it out of context.

EDIT April 5, 2012: A recent article published in Esquire sheds some light on the statistics:

Once you're out of college, you'll have to intern.  Again, no choice.  The practice of not paying young people for their labor has become so ingrained in the everyday practice of American business that we've forgotten how bizarre and recent the development is.  In the early 1980s, 3 percent of college grads had had an internship. By 2006, 84 percent had done at least one. Multiple internships are common.  According to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, more than 75 percent of employers prefer students who have interned or had a similar working experience. 
Yup.  I knew it.  Previous generations didn't have to suffer working at free internships.  So, when know-it-all Baby Boomers tell you to work for free, almost all of them are telling you to do something that they themselves probably would have regarded as being beneath them or as extremely distasteful forty-five years ago.


Anonymous said...

We used to have apprenticeships in this country. Until the late 19th century, you could apprentice as a lawyer. A person at the age of 12 would apprentice himself out. The master was required to teach him the trade, clothe him, feed him, and shelter him. He would learn and work the craft. At 18 y.o., the master would give him his journey man's papers. He would be a functional craftsman.

Not long ago, I went to legal aid and offered to preform some free work to learn how to preform divorces/ basic legal work. I didn't want to grab a practice manual and hope. I was told frankly, "no experience, no help." They didn't have the time. They were "flooded" with similar requests. Frnakly, MDs/DOs don't go through this unpaid/guessing crap. thank you ABA!

dreadlawks said...

I'd steer as far away as possible from attempting to make modern day comparisons to slavery but not really. Just saying. Touchy subject.

Frank the Underemployed Professional said...

I don't deny that it's better to be a free intern than to be an actual slave. However, from a strictly economic perspective, I think a slave receives more compensation.

Anonymous said...

As I see it, it is formal education which is the real scandal. Think about it. You pay someone to tell you to read a book and then write something later. Could you not do this by yourself? Could you not arrange with other people in the same situation to read each others paper, if your really need feedback? Engineering and science lab courses that require access to very expensive equipment is another story. Then it makes sense to pay for access. But simply to read a book? And most of higher education boils down to that: reading books. Even most of engineering and science.

Internship for some professions is like access to expense equipment in science and engineering lab courses. It makes sense not merely that you do the work for free, but that you actually pay to be allowed to do the work. What is the problem here?

Anonymous said...

I've always been angred by internships, considering the expectation that one work for free to be a form of, you know - exploitation. (I might make an exception for structured internships that earn college credit, wherein the student labors in exchange for some sort of on-the-job training and class credit.)

Personally, I've always had a sneaking suspicion that the real reason internships are so popular with employers is because they help sort students by socio-economic class. The kids with wealthy parents can afford to work for free, and also have the connections to get the really good internships. The great unwashed may win a scholarship to go to school, but landing a plum internship and having a way to support yourself while you do it takes more than just good grades.

So, the kids with the best intership experience are usually the kids with the "right" affluent background, who will bring the "right" attitudes to work with them.

But then again, I'm cynical.

Anonymous said...

I think that Marx said that the definition of a slave is one's whose labor is sold in one lump sum; whereas, an "employee" laborer sells his labor peicemeal by the hour. I don't know what an "apprentice" is?

Dave said...

"It makes sense not merely that you do the work for free, but that you actually pay to be allowed to do the work. What is the problem here?"

Because responding objections to discovery ain't exactly rocket science. That places can't afford $15 an hour to pay a kid, or that they don't have the heart to because they just enjoy screwing people so much is just a sign of how far down the toilet our country, and our collective morality is.

Nando said...

But a JD is an extremely versatile degree, right?!?! It is an asset in the business world - at least according to $elf-intere$ted "law professor" pigs.

Anonymous said...

Recently read op-ed article on unpaid internships in the NY Times. The author has a forthcoming book on the the subject, “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.”

MillerFlower said...

Even if you were a so-called "rich kid", why would you want to work for free? I don't get this. Yes, you could get some experience to put on your resume, but what if you still can't find a job after that? Or, what if your employer doesn't help you by giving you favorable references? There is so much at risk here. All I can say, they must want to be a lawyer really, really, really bad.

I once did an unpaid, two week internship, but that is the maximum amount of time I would ever do free work. Unpaid work should be illegal, unless it is volunteer work for a non-profit organization.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad that this conversation is popping up on the internet. It is neo-slavery and it is happening at a staggering rate. Somehow people in this country have been tricked and convinced that working for free is a good thing. They will continue with this notion and probably make it mandatory for people to have internships / work for free. At some places it already is mandatory and I don't understand how that is not slavery. I am struggling right now because I did a ton of internships throughout college and although I had some great experiences, NOW I refuse to work for free and no one is hiring recent college graduates. I woke up after I had a bad experience at an internship a few months after graduating. Everyone who I interned with either got hired or a job offer, even though I was the most qualified and hard working of the bunch. I am thinking of moving because in other countries where workers are actually protected, the idea of working for free is a joke or actually seen as slavery. Somehow they get it, and we don't.

Blogger Templates by 2007