Unpaid internships are just not worth it

August 6, 2012

If you think you need an unpaid internship to get a foot in the door and then a job, I’d like you to meet reality:

The [National Association of Colleges and Employers] released a study this week showing that 60% of 2012 graduates who worked a paid internship got at least one job offer, while just 37% of those in unpaid gigs got any offers. That’s slightly – only slightly – better than the offer rate for graduates who skipped internships entirely, at 36%.

It is no better than no internship at all. Being paid on the other hand is much better, 62% better. And that’s for all unpaid internships, not to mention unfair internships where you surely get no on-the-job training.

Spotted: another weak defense of unfair internships

February 19, 2012

Every now and then, some people bravely stick out their neck to defend unfair internships. The latest is Dreama Lee, from InternProfits, a website apparently dedicated to their promotion, if their welcome video is to be believed (“overworked people and unemployed youngsters; I see a win-win!”). She wrote an open letter to the New York Times, in response to their debate about unpaid internships.

The first third is an irrelevant attack on Ross Perlin’s credentials. Ross is not making an argument of authority, so I don’t see how attacking the fact that he may not be a “faculty member of an institution of higher education” among other things is of relevance.

Then, the author makes a straw man argument (we’ve seen this before): “So the solution, according to Perlin, is to end all internships.” I am not aware of anyone fighting against unfair internships that has ever made such a proposal. Yet, this is the one the author sets up to attack and discredit.

On the fact that some interns are reading Intern Nation, she thinks that the impact will be to “make the future intern feel like their internship is a waste of time and create more of an “entitlement” mentality before the Gen Y’er even steps foot into the employer’s office, further encouraging a stereotype that many Gen X and Boomers absolutely abhor.” She’s convinced that older people thinking that younger people feel “entitled” is a new thing, invented by baby boomers and Generation Y. Actually, it’s such an old and common thing that there’s a word for it: ageism. So yes older people think so and no, it’s not the fault of young people. Apparently, it’s human nature and Gen Y will likely complain about the Zs, even if they also accept to work for free.

But the crux of her argument is that internships also have advantages. That’s a funny way to put it. Who said they don’t? Seriously? This argument is not a defense of internship. Just because a phenomenon or behavior has upsides does not justify it. Speeding is great: it’ll take you there faster and it’s exciting! Why outlaw speeding! Who cares if it’s dangerous! Heck, think of how good slavery was to the economy of the South. It was thriving! Even for the slaves: a guaranteed job, housing, food and even a husband or wife sometimes. Really, with all these advantages, why were people complaining? Think of most illegal, unfair and outrageous behaviours and you’ll find anupside somewhere (robbers do gain stuff after all!). As silly as it sounds, this is how Dreama Lee is justifying exploitation of young graduates who have to accept serial unpaid jobs because they have no negotiation power.

At the end of it all, despite the snark above or the self-righteousness of the open letter, there is not so much difference between the positions of pro and anti-unfair internships. Even the author praises programs that pay interns and is keen that they interns should be learning something, much like we have nothing against real apprenticeships and support good opportunities to learn in a work environment. And I agree with her that the New York Times was not able to find one credible person to defend unpaid internships.

A debate about unfair internships

February 5, 2012

The New York Times is hosting a debate about unpaid internships (side note: I really wish having been more successful at promoting the use of “unfair internships”). So far, five people have shared their opinion, four against and one in favor. There is Ross Perlin, well-known as the author of Intern Nation, who describes the recent evolution (degradation) of internships. There is Alex Footman, who is suing Fox Searchlight for his own experience as an unpaid intern and who’s making the argument that enforcing the law is he government’s job, not his (agreed). Then, an employment attorney makes the simple point, argued here too that internships are “a valuable idea, if we follow the law”. Raphael Pope-Sussman makes the case that unions should take up the fight to enforce the law and restrict unfair internships (in the UK, the Trade Union Congress does it).

This is all good and thoughtful, but let’s look at the dissenter’s argument. David Law, founder of Above the Law (I’m not joking) makes this interesting argument:

But unpaid internships are more a symptom than a cause of economic weakness. They are so popular right now because many employers, large and small, simply don’t have the ability to create new, full-time, paid positions.

Oh, that’s what it is! The employers really, really want to pay their junior staff, they just can’t afford it! Oh well then. They should pass on the idea to all companies that are going bankrupt: stop paying your staff if you can’t afford it, it’s no big deal. David Law then caps it off with this gem:

In the end, the status quo, while imperfect and inconsistent, may not be that bad.

What he apparently does not realize is that there is no status quo: the situation is getting worse, as Ross Perlin demonstrates. Who, 20 years ago, needed to go through some 5 internships before getting a paid position?

It’s good that the New York Times take up this issue and it’s even better to see that it is so hard to find a good defense of unfair internships.

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.

Virtual internships – virtually real jobs

March 6, 2009

From an article in The Examiner about virtual internships:

When we interview for virtual internship positions, we are really looking for two things. First, interns need to be self-starters. Because they won’t be in our office each day, I need to know that they will be diligent with deadlines, make good use of their time and come back to me if they have the ability to take on additional projects,” said Woofter.

I wonder what makes these positions “internships”?

Unpaid internships: common but illegal

March 5, 2009

Another labor lawyer looks at unfair internships, another layer finds an illegal practice. Michael Tracy:

A common, but frequently unreported labor violation is the use of unpaid interns in violation of minimum wage and possibly overtime laws.  The scenario is fairly typical: a company offers an opportunity to ‘break into the business’ in exchange for the intern working for free.

He also provides his perspective on college credits in return for job experience:

Some companies try to get around the law by requiring that the internship be part of a college program.  However, there is no exception to the law allowed just because the “intern” may receive college credit.

He also has an interesting opinion on the lack of lawsuits:

The main reason that you do not see more lawsuits regarding unpaid internships is that the interns are very unlikely to sue.  In most cases, they fear being blacklisted, as they will undoubtedly need to use the internship as a reference to get any future work.

I would add that interns see their situation as a transition. By the time they file and win a lawsuit, they will have moved on to a proper job. They won’t benefit from their effort. But the law has provisions to address this problem, at least in California:

This is where California’s Private Attorney General Act comes in.  Because this law allows anyone at the company to sue for labor violations, even if they themselves are not affected by the violation, it is now possible for these companies to be brought into compliance with the law.  If you work for a company that uses unpaid interns and would like to put an end to this illegal practice, you should consider bringing a Private Attorney General cause of action.

So if you’re an employee that’s been displaced by an unpaid intern, you have the law on your side.

Happy to work for free

March 4, 2009

Here’s an illustration of why unfair internships thrive as potential employees are weakened. From The Daily Princetonian:

The recession is also boosting the applicant pool at FG Companies, a small boutique investment bank in New York that only offers unpaid internships, said Kai Chan GS ’04, an associate at the firm. “[The downturn] is great for guys like us, honestly, because we’re finding a lot of people who are saying, ‘Yeah, we’re happy to work for you for free,’ ” Chan said. “I noticed last year when we did interviews and said, ‘Just to be clear, this is an unpaid internship,’ some people were wavering,” Chan explained. “This year, when I explicitly start off the interview saying it’s an unpaid internship, they’re fine with that, and just say, ‘Let’s proceed.’ ”

This is the reason why unfair internships are illegal: because they are the consequence of the weak negotiation position of potential interns – exploitive, in other words. Those have no choice but to lower and lower their requirements to even gain experience. The good news is that there is a solution: collective action through legislation. And it already happened: unfair internships are illegal.