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.


How can the financial crisis benefit internships?

February 8, 2009

If internships are done according to the law,”the employer provides the training and derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the student”. You would expect that during a recession, employers can’t afford to train interns while cutting off staff. Then how can it be that we ran into this quote in the Columbia Spectator:

“As there are fewer jobs to go around, there are more internships available”

Because unfair internships are un(der)paid jobs, not proper trainings, that’s why. And since students compete against each other to enter the job market, they are even more desperate these days and will lower their standards.

As jobs become more scarce, the importance of internships seems to have grown, as applicants feel a greater need to polish their resumes. “I see students who feel that one internship is not enough.”

And once everybody has their two internships, this will become “two is not enough” and then three. Where will it stop?

Unfair internships are a large-scale illegal practice hidden in plain sight.

Do you want an internship? It’ll cost you

January 28, 2009

The mainstream media (liberal, remember!) has one more priceless – or rather costly – story about unfair internships. The Wall Street Journal praises programs that ask for money in return for placements in unpaid internships.

But parents say the fees are a small price for giving their children a toehold in a treacherous job market.

How much more do we need to understand that we have a collective action problem? A parent that gives a “toehold” to his kid has just put every other kid behind and other parents will be pushed to do the same until everybody is paying to get a job and we’re back at square one. What do you do then to get ahead? You pay more. That’s how you go from accepting a lower pay, to accepting something below the minimum wage, to accepting an unpaid job and now to paying to get one.

But Megan, then 20, had already applied for 25 summer internships and hadn’t received any replies.

Do we need any more proof? Maybe this.

The program they used (…) is one of a handful of for-profit internship companies that have sprung up in the past few years.


Gina Philips, Los Angeles, a consultant to the Alzheimer’s Association, says demand from wealthy parents has led employers in the entertainment industry to create internships that otherwise wouldn’t exist, just to help raise money.

And I spared you all the justifications that finally, these pay-to-work schemes are making the job market more fair to the less fortunate. Lucky you.

Depressing life of an unpaid intern – Not?

June 27, 2008

Well well, who would’ve guessed: Fox News think that going unpaid is just the way to go. Of course, they don’t bring up any argument that hasn’t been mentioned before: it’s good for networking, it gets you experience, etc. But still, they fail to explain why it justifies being un(der)paid.

They should have stopped after their lead:

You arise with the sun, get to work by nine, stay at the office until six or later, but come Friday when paychecks go out, you’re left empty handed. Sound familiar? You must be living the depressing life of an unpaid intern.

Unpaid Internships? No Such Thing

May 18, 2008

Sounds like pure denial? Well, maybe it is. The rationale is that since you gain experience, your internships is paid. Then, will someone explain to me who doesn’t gain experience in a job?

Anyway, Business Week has a debate about unpaid internships under this title. Go contribute.

How to find a job? Go unpaid!

April 16, 2008

This Forbes article on how to score an internship gives pretty standard advice on how to find a job, except for two pieces of advice that should ring a bell:

Don’t Be Afraid To Go Unpaid -Part-time internships and for-credit programs might burn holes in your pockets faster than smoking in bed, but unpaid positions will open up full-time opportunities after graduation

Target Places That Won’t Turn You Down – Show up at your local college or university campus and ask if there are openings for research assistants. Unpaid interns are usually welcome at law firms, government offices (like a state senator’s) and local chambers of commerce or think tanks. Just show up, résumé in hand, and be persistent until they tell you who can use you. Somebody’s bound to need free labor. And, with any luck, you can parlay the unpaid grunt work this summer into a compensated gig for summer 2009.

See, that’s great: if you go unpaid, you may get paid the next time. And if everybody has an internship experience, then go unpaid for your first two jobs and it’s very very likely that your third job will be paid! Now, that’s how you start a career!

Work for free? Suck it up!

April 5, 2008

So you’re about to enter the job market and you’re told that things have changed and that nowadays, your first job is called an “internship” and it means you’ll work for free? Sarah Caldwel has some wise advice for you:

In any case, my message to students facing the call to free labor: stop moanin’ and groanin’. Suck it up, read the scripts and answer the phones in your heated/air conditioned office, and go blog about the injustice of it all

I can’t start to say how wrong this is. Would Sarah Caldwell give this advice to anyone facing an injustice? “My message to women who are paid less than their men counterpart is this: suck it up, you’ll make enough to make a living anyway. Go complain about it a the knitting club!” Or maybe “My message to kids who are bullied is this: suck it up, you’ll get your degree anyway and it’ll make you tougher. Go cry to your mother about it.” The dismissive and paternalistic tone is as upsetting as the advice that’s given.

Students facing unfair internships have every right and a civic duty to denounce them. Apparently however, this situation will be a fact of life as long as a fairly powerless and divided section of the population is affected. And Sarah Caldwell will have done nothing about it.