An op-ed by Anya Kamenetz in the New York Times of May 30th, 2006, is well summarized in its title: “Take This Internship and Shove It“. Some things she mentions:
- According to a Vault Survey, about half of all internships are unpaid. This does not take into account all the underpaid ones. I couldn’t find the survey she mentions, but in this Vault survey, 36% of respondents say they were unpaid.
- “They fly in the face of meritocracy — you must be rich enough to work without pay to get your foot in the door”
- “A 1998 survey of nearly 700 employers by the Institute on Education and the Economy at Columbia University’s Teachers College found: ‘Compared to unpaid internships, paid placements are strongest on all measures of internship quality. The quality measures are also higher for those firms who intend to hire their interns.’”
The blogosphere got all excited over the issue, which is a very good thing.
- Garance Frankee-Ruta, at The American Prospect, tags the op-ed “brillant” and wonders why unions pay so little attention to the issue. I wonder why no one pays more attention to this issue.
- Justin Cox, an intern himself, agrees that the rules are relaxed for interns, but he’s not so sure about overidentification. His organization adds 60 interns to a staff of 120 over the summer and they pay them $150-200 a week, “no where near what they pay real staff”.
- Lindsay Beyerstein, at Majikthise, worries about the effects on meritocracy. Her solution? “Universities could help by creating more co-op programs.” In a follow-up, she questions the tendency of liberal organizations to use unpaid interns: “It’s hypocritical for progressive groups to preach social change but practice exclusion.”
- BDA suggests his own radical solution: “One of our leaders should introduce a bill to ban unpaid internship in Congress and federal agencies. Call it the ‘Equal Opportunity in Educational Internships Act.’”
- Will Wilkinson promises some hard economic analysis but unfortunately falls into the Internet-size trap of personal attacks and mockery all too quickly. Too bad, it was promising.
- Andrew Samick, professor of economics at Dartmouth University, took it a bit personal since his university subsidizes unpaid internships. He suggests that interns who want to be paid should study at Dartmouth. They subsidize 40 positions…
- Ezra Klein, at The American Propect, points that many interns are not working for corporate America, but for NGOs. It’s a good start to assess the complexity of the issue.
Anya Kamenetz’ fundamental point is right: unpaid internships are rarely justified. It’s also relevant to paint unpaid internships as a subsidy, although any way of measuring it can only be controversial.
I disagree, however with her that so many internships are “simulations”. The problem is that they are the opposite of simulations: they are real jobs. That’s why they should be paid. And that’s why they’re not as laid back and fun as she seems to think.
I am not sure that her “oversupply of labour” is the right way to put it, but interns are definitely competing against each other. That is why they can hardly turn down an unpaid position. They are so weak and disorganized against employers that they have to accept what is offered or let go of the opportunity at the risk of finding nothing.