Five years too many…

July 30, 2011

This blog turns five today. Sigh. Much like its fourth birthday, it is no reason to celebrate. Through those years, the financial crisis seems to have worsen the situation for interns, as employers try to squeeze costs by avoiding to pay their contributing staff. At the same time, there has been a flurry of activity, including a recent book, Intern Nation, and the creation of several blogs, campaigns in the UK especially, and an increased awareness of the problem. At this point it is not clear what will happen next, but one thing is sure: it is not time to fold.

As the quick advice box on the right says, this should be seen more as a website than a blog. It is not meant to follow the news, but to provide resources for interns and food for thought for employers. Use the links at the top to browse the content. And feel free to send suggestions.

Unpaid interns: working for free

July 29, 2011

We went from lukewarm to cold on internships-for-credits, but it looks like it has gotten worse out there. Not only are colleges playing along, advertising unfair internships and making up programs with credits for internships without pay, but now they have started managing the expectations of graduates and legitimize what is an illegal and unfair practice. From the Globe and Mail, this quote from a student at Sheridan College:

“That was something [professors] stressed really hard – that we would not get paid”

Wait, there’s more, from another student:

“Humber is holding my diploma up in the air and saying we’re not giving it to you till you do this.”

At least, one law professor from York sees through it:

“My sense is that many employers believe simply calling someone an ‘intern’ relieves them of all employment obligations”.

Exactly. Ask them a simply question: why do you call it an “internship”?


Unpaid Interns, Complicit Colleges

April 5, 2011

Ross Perlin wrote an op-ed in the New York Times to denounce the complicity of US colleges in encouraging the practice of unfair internships. I have few problems with the argument since it is indeed scandalous that anyone should support such an unfair practice (except Fox Business that hilariously suggests to use those parental connections!).

The op-ed made it to the top of the most emailed articles from the New York Times and has inspired a few reactions on the web. I chose to respond to a blog post by Marc F. Bellemare, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Economics at Duke University, where he argues that Ross Perlin’s “crusade” is misguided. You probably better have a look at his argument first if you want to understand my response.

You deserve praise for attracting some more attention to the issue raised by Ross Perlin in his op-ed, but I’m afraid that you did not make a convincing argument against his case.

You’re right to point at the group think fallacy in Ross’ (pointless) argument about the perceived political bent of US colleges. This makes it all the more disappointing that you should try to justify the practice because it dates back to the Middle Ages. Are there many other practices that you would like to justify on that basis? Following your own link, it is called a traditional wisdom fallacy.

You rightly point that new entrants on the job market contribute less and deserve a lower pay, but you overestimate the cost. The system of pay raises already takes into account the fact that a less experienced employee is likely to contribute less and hence is paid less. Are you suggesting that new entrants contribute zero to their employer? That they are paid for their experience rather than their contribution to a company? Are you suggesting that certain unions are right to put seniority ahead of performance?

Also, you would be right to suggest that it would be ridiculous to ban unpaid internships (“(…) banning unpaid internships, as Mr. Perlin suggests, is still not the way to go.”) but Ross never suggests this. He rather says that the practice has long exceeded the limits of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1947 and that credits are a fig leaf for an exploitative practice.  Here, you commit a “straw man fallacy” by attributing him an easily refuted argument.

The problem is “unfair internships” whereby an entry-level employee goes without pay just because it is slapped with the title “intern” — regardless of its actual responsibilities, obligations and contribution. Long live the unpaid internships whereby an intern receives proper supervision and training. But this is not what Ross Perlin has witnessed and is reporting upon. In fact, he says that unpaid internships are just fine “if the college plays a central role in securing the internship and making it a substantive academic experience.” He is criticizing the rise of an unfair practice whereby employers take advantage of a weak segment of the workforce, now with the complicity of colleges.

Later, you say: “To see why, suppose we were to ban unpaid internships starting this year. Once employers have to pay for their interns, there will be a considerable drop in the number of internships are available. That is the direct effect of a ban on unpaid internships.” May that happen sooner than later. The existence of a practice and even its benefits does not justify it if the costs are greater. Should we lift speed limits, we’ll gain time and excitement at the price of safety and efficiency, so we don’t. But to revert to economics, what we have here is a collective action problem and it is the reason why it’s regulated against. The new entrants on the job market have little bargaining power, since they don’t yet belong to a collective bargaining arrangement and compete against each other, nor do they have a “signal” from the job market to prove their worth. The reason why unfair internships are already illegal (cf. FLSA, 1947) is to avoid this race to the bottom where workers are forced to give up even their pay to enter the job market, or have started to pay to work, as Ross demonstrates. When no one can do it, the playing field is leveled and no paid jobs are lost. Some may even be created as these companies would hire entry-level staff to perform those same tasks, stripped of their capacity to exploit the oversupply of labor.

Lastly, two quibbles. (1) You are right that taking an unfair internship is a form of signaling. I don’t see how it justifies it. You are descriptive, but stop short of making an argument to defend the practice. Unless you are concerned for employers who won’t be able to discern from GPA, extracurricular activities, interviews and tests which are the valuable candidates? (2) Your concern at the thought that we will create a generational rift if we enforce the ban on unfair internships (again, there is no ban on unpaid internships and Ross is not suggesting one) is very noble, but a bit thin. You correctly point to a path dependency problem. Are we stuck with this unfair and illegal practice just because we started? Is it clear that the new cohorts will lose more from missing on exploitative work experience than they would from having a fairer job market welcome them?

The “crusade” (the straw man, again!) is one for law enforcement to correct an unfair situation whereby the weak are exploited. The complicity of colleges deserves to be denounced, as Ross did.

Voluntary Sector: Interns should be paid a fair wage

February 18, 2011

Another way in which volunteering and internships meet is when volunteer organizations hire “interns”. Janet Fleming, from the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, makes the ethical case in The Guardian:

So the lack of both money and access to networks compounds existing social and economic inequalities. Given that so many organisations in the voluntary sector work to overcome social and economic inequality and to improve the lives and opportunities of people and their communities, surely we have an obligation to ensure that internships in our sector are open to young people from all social and financial backgrounds.

Put your money where your heart is?

Free labour: Volunteering and Internships

September 18, 2010

I am somewhat surprised that the issue of internships vs volunteering does not come up more often in the comments. Maybe it’s because the distinction is crystal clear to most, which is a good thing. In any case, this article from the Ottawa Citizen has an excellent example of each.


Recently, she signed up as volunteer co-ordinator for the Dress for Success Foundation, which trains and clothes needy women looking for work. While that takes several hours a day, she also volunteers at Goodlife Fitness’ daycare, teaches at Blessed Sacrament Church and is a skating coach for the West Carleton Hockey Association.

Unfair internship:

“A lot of shows have volunteer internships, but they’re very hard to get,” says Borer, who lived with other interns in Los Angeles and was supported by his parents during his stay.

“It’s free labour for the huge corporation, but it’s also experience for me.

“I believe that it will further my résumé, absolutely. I assume it would set me apart from other 20-year-olds who have just finished the same program. It’s a very competitive industry. So if you can do volunteer work, it’s extremely beneficial.”

Very beneficial for you and detrimental to everyone else who now has to work for free to remain competitive. That’s why there’s a law to address this collective action problem.

Now, the bad news.

Molina says those numbers appear to be shrinking because “volunteering isn’t as sexy as an internship,” which is more about getting work experience than contributing to the community.

Oh dear.

Four years too many

July 30, 2010

It’s been four years today that this blog has been addressing the issue of unfair internships. There is no reason to celebrate. This is not a blog that’s meant to last. This is a blog that’s meant to to self-destruct by bringing attention to a scandal hidden in plain sight. It’s hidden behind your newspapers who employ unpaid interns in staff position. It’s hidden in the first job experiences that so many of you had. It’s hidden in the colleges where students are encouraged to take some practical training, even unpaid, because Lord knows their intellectual training makes them worthless and they won’t have the time in the next 40 years to gain practical experience. It’s hidden in the cubicle next to yours.

At least, in those four years, we have seen seen some positive trends. In the UK, there’s a serious campaign around the parliament to ban unfair internships. In the US, the Department of Labor is finally paying attention. In Europe, outside of the UK, there’s been some talks of a European Quality Charter in Internships but other than that, not much. The mainstream media ran a few stories, if not enough by a mile.

Let’s hope that a year from now there will be more to celebrate, and four years from now, we won’t have to be here.

BBC Should End Unpaid Work Experience

July 25, 2010

Wow, get that: Andy Durham, the British Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sports (and Miscellaneous?) criticized the BBC for taking unpaid staff in actual jobs, what we call here unfair internships:

“There are young people working within the BBC for long periods without pay. This is not fair to them, but more importantly it excludes many others who simply don’t have the means to support themselves,” said Mr Burnham. “We look to our national broadcaster to set a better example and not take advantage of the desire of young people to work within the media. The BBC needs to show leadership and put an end to this practice immediately.”

Well said! Now that’s courageous!

Oh, wait…

He’s no longer in power.