Biting the Hand That Doesn’t Feed Me

July 31, 2006

You think an internship is a meaningful work experience as opposed to an unrelated job? Try being Minnie Mouse for a summer.

Slate’s Sonia Smith, herself a former intern there, reported on the college credits for cash swap (Biting the Hand That Doesn’t Feed Me, June 8, 2006). The concept may initially sound academic, but it might take you into Mickey’s costume. That’s why she isn’t too hot about the swap, as her subtitle suggests: “Internships for College Credits are a Scam”.

It’s in part a problem of law enforcement, she says: “In theory, federal law should protect them from undue exploitation. In practice, it usually doesn’t.” She points that the responsibility lies in part on the interns themselves: “But interns generally don’t report their employers to the Labor Department for the weeks they spend at the copy machine. They’re too grateful.”

Interns all too often don’t realize the value of their work. They are too star-struck by the company’s name (“I work for ENRON!”) to realize that the company is not being generous: they actually need the hand.

Apparently, there are many organizations who deny students a fair retribution. Sonia Smith compiled herself some interesting statistics:

Using the listings in the 2005 edition of The Internship Bible, I calculated that 52 percent of magazine internships, 54 percent of politics and public-policy internships, 62 percent of TV internships, and 71 percent of radio internships are unpaid. (Newspapers are the exception to the media rule, with only 19 percent of the listed positions going unpaid.)

She mentions colleges that pay students a stipend while they attend an unpaid internship. It may deserve a “Nice-Clean-Up-After-Others” award, but it isn’t the solution. Employers get the benefit of an extra staff; they are the ones who should be paying in most cases. And, as Sonia Smith rightfully says, “The college-stipend option is a helpful fix, but it’s probably realistic only for a relatively small number of well-endowed schools.”

Kudos to Slate for publishing Sonia Smith’s complaint that Slate was great (honest!), but I’d have much preferred a paycheck to the course credit.”, but I’m not sure it makes up for her boss’ clumsy defense of interns, a few years earlier.

Under the dubious title “Washington Interns: They’re Not as Silly and Worthless as You Might Think” (July 20, 2001) affirms: “The kinds of young people who want to come to Washington are generally not avaricious.” Exactly: it’s rather people who hire them who are. How can one be perceived as avaricious when asking for a salary?

It gets better. Without blinking an eye, she suggests: “For better or worse, they often serve as cheap clerical labor, replacing secretaries at a fraction the cost.” And that’s supposed to be a good thing. Dear secretary, take good note that you can be replaced for that cheap a deal.

It goes to show that not only students should be concerned by unfair internships.


You ain’t seen nothin’ yet

July 31, 2006

You think the competition is tight already?

“Mark Oldman, a founder and a co-president of Vault.com, a career-information Web site, said his firm estimates that the number of high school students doing internships has increased 30 percent in the past five years.”

It’s taken from a New York Times story (Interns, the Founts of Youth, July 28, 2006) about teenagers “hired” as interns for adults who need their expertise in teenagerism. Let’s not knock on friendhsip here, but if the professionals get a salary out of what the teenagers do for them, it would only be fair to share.

  • Magnificient bastard links the practice to child labour and ironically announces “Seems like a grand idea to me…I’ll take two!”
  • Matt Sokoloff, an intern at ABC in New York, wonders if he’s doing enough to bring out the inner child in his senior producer.
  • Pamela Ross recalls her own internships: “Back when I was filing papers and copying documents, I felt as if “They” were doing me a favor. My day was complete if I was complimented on my excellence in coffee making skills.”
  • The article draws the attention of Frank Bruno who calls the phenomenon “creepy”.

Take This Internship and Shove It

July 30, 2006

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.

Agree

  • 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.'”

Disagree

  • 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.


Let’s talk about unfair internships

July 30, 2006

Along with temperatures, the issue of unfair internships tends to get hotter as summer approaches. And now, it’s the heatwave. Students have emerged from academia, hoping to gain money and experience over their summer holiday. Unfortunately, they all too often realize that they will have to make a choice between the two: either they will take up a paid job not related to their field of study, or they will take an un(der)paid internship.

After years of reflexion and discussion on the issue, I’ve decided to do my bit. I hope that this blog will become an agora where the issue is discussed, a resource for those who are confronted with unpaid internships, a place where to find what the world is saying about unpaid internships.

I make no secret about my position: I think that unfair internships should be abolished. There are many nuances to this affirmation and all internships are not bad, so I invite you to explore the FAQ section to know more about it. This blog will not keep out the opinions of those who believe unfair internships are a good thing – mainly because I believe in the right to disagree.

That being said, the tone will, hopefully, be moderate. I understand that the blogosphere and the Internet in general are not conducive to polite exchanges, but let’s make an effort here. Shall I betray my own commitment, please call me on it. And please do your part in the comments section. The main reason is that we have more chances to be heard if we employ a respectful tone and avoid personal attacks.