Are Unpaid Internships Destroying America?

June 15, 2009

This is the provocative title of a post from Derek Thompson at the Business blog of The Atlantic. It is built around Anya Kamenetz’ article in the NYT three years ago. I’ll reproduce my comment here, which sums up arguments made over the years on this blog.

Unpaid internships are often unfair and illegal (see the Fair Labor Standards Act).

The short explanation: if you’re contributing to a company, you deserve a salary. Call it an internship, a job, a contract, an assignment – it’s all the same. If your internship is actually an apprenticeship where you’re a drain on a company that goes out of its way to train you, it’s legal.

Yes, interns gain valuable experience. But aren’t all employees benefiting from their work experience? It leads to improved productivity, pay increases and promotions. Entry-level employees already receive a lower, entry-level salary for their lower productivity.

“I do think the internships paid off, inasmuch as they led to other internships and, eventually, to jobish things.”

This illustrates well the collective action problem: some time ago you could get a job out of school, then to get a leg up, you would do an internships, then everybody does and you need two to get ahead, then everybody has two… This is where we are now. There is a law against it. It is just ignored because graduate students have little power in the job market and their internships are just a transition.

More questions are addressed at UnfairInternships.com. Thanks for talking about the issue.

If by any chance I get visitors coming from The Atlantic looking for more, have a look at the FAQ for more answers or click on the tags such as “Legal” for more references.


Debating the legality of internships

June 11, 2009

There’s an interesting discussion going on at Model Mayhem, a site about photography and modelling, about the legality of internships. Unpaid internships are common in this business and a quote from UnfairInternships.com got the conversation started.

Since I’m not a member of this site, I’ll address a few points here, even though many are already discussed in the FAQ and Resources sections of this blog.

If someone wants/accepts an unfair internships, it’s their own business.

This someone is putting everybody else one step behind. The fact is that this practice is endemic. People who do not want to take an internship now have to do so because they compete for an actual job against people who have internship experience. It’s a collective action problem.

An internship is a great way to learn and get into the business.

That’s very true. And so is a first job. An unfair internship is not better than a first job to learn a profession. The only reason why the former replaces the latter is competition between new entrants on the job market that lowers the bar.

Congressmen have interns.

It would not make it legal, but if they are offering unfair internships it may explain why they are not acting much against this form of labor exploitation. This being said, I am not privvy to the contracts between interns and congressmen and I don’t know what is the salary offered.

Not all internships are bad.

Also very true. This is why this website is about unfair internships. When internships are shaped like apprenticeships, they are a very good way to learn without being exploited. When they’re paid a legal wage, it’s just a job.

Is volunteering evil then?

No. The difference is generally that the organization does not derive a profit from your work.