Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Morality of Unpaid Internships

I'm not sure I agree with this fellow, but he makes an interesting argument:
This summer, millions of students -- some graduating, some between school years -- will spend the summer working. Some will work at restaurants and on retail floors, where working is called "working." Some will work at think tanks and non-profit organizations, where working is called "interning." Estimates put the number of unpaid interns every year between 500,000 and one million. So, in a country where working for free is mostly illegal, a student population somewhere between the size of Tucson and Dallas will be working for free, in plain view.

A few years ago, I was a proud part of unpaid intern nation. I took unpaid internships at two think tanks, a campaign and a magazine. Were they useful? Definitely. Were they moral? Harder question.
I lean towards one of the arguments that he dismisses, that internships are used by students merely to gain education and a "leg up" on others when they apply for paid jobs.  That poorer students, who must support themselves with paid jobs, are at a disadvantage in this situation isn't enough (for me) to call the system immoral, as poorer students are at a disadvantage in almost every situation!  That's reality, not morality.

But I find his arguments interesting.  Not necessarily strong, but interesting.

10 comments:

allen (in Michigan) said...

It's a buyer's market in labor courtesy of, in part, government.

The minimum wage law means people whose skills don't merit minimum wage don't get a job at all so that's part of the barrier facing these kids. The other part is that there are more applicants for the entry-level positions then there are entry-level position. Between the two, the minimum wage law and the labor supply, the labor buyer is in an advantageous position.

The hiring agency has organizational goals for which it exists and if it's a choice between the furtherance of those goals or putting some money in the pocket of some kid it's really a matter of determining which end the organization exists to serve.

mazenko said...

It's always seemed to violate the Fair Labor Standards Act to me. And while we can argue that if someone is willing it should be legal, I don't buy that - at least not in regards to building the institutions of labor that have given rise to broad prosperity.

People were willing to risk being ground into sausage early in the Industrial Revolution, but as a civilized society we concluded that's not acceptable. I feel the same way about internships. If it's work, or onthejob training, it should be paid. Just because companies can get away with it doesn't mean they should.

Granted, I am not aligning advertising internships on Wall Street with meatpacking. But work is work, and wages should be paid.

Rose said...

As a speech pathologist, I had to do an unpaid internship--two actually--in order to get my Masters Degree. Our professors lectured us endlessly on how unethical it would be to work for pay at an internship. "Anyone who would pay for an intern is just trying to get a cheap therapist," they said.

Apparently getting a "free" therapist was much more ethical.

Now there is such a shortage of SLPs going into the field (and the programs are sooooo impacted) that there are a few paid internships out there. From what I hear, the schools still don't like them.

Darren said...

Is there not an argument to be made that the "pay" is the experience, said experience to be "traded" for a real, paying job in the future?

Steve USMA '85 said...

I guess you have to determine what an internship is first. All internships I have experienced were a requirement to get a particular degree or certificate. What I have been told by more then one institution is that the classroom can only teach so much. To ensure the student learns all they should to qualify for the degree/certificate, they need to extend the classroom to an office-setting. This ensures the student has the full breathe of knowledge they need. Thus, the school treats the internship as a 'class' and the student must 'attend' class at a place of work. Their 'instructor' is their boss at the business they work at for the internship.

Thus Rose had to perform two internships to be a speech pathologist. I had to perform an internship to become a survey methodologist. Yes, you don't get paid money but in the school's eyes, you do get compensation. You get the degree/certificate you seek. To get the degree and also get money means you are getting paid twice for doing the same work. At least, that is the way the school wants you to look at it.

mazenko said...

The "argument" could be made that they are being "paid" with experience and access. In fact, we make that argument to students all the time - that studying is their "job" and their pay is being granted greater access to opportunity later in life. But in the workforce there is far too much margin for error and abuse of the system.

The same was true years ago when companies like Microsoft settled out of court by paying millions of dollars after society concluded they were maintaining "contact workers" and "freelancers" for years at a time to avoid paying benefits like full-time workers. The clearly hired and kept the workers as full-time employees, but renamed it to avoid fair and legal compensation. Such behavior - or manipulation of loopholes - simply isn't conducive to a thriving labor market. Though it is lucrative for management in the short term.

allen (in Michigan) said...

Is there not an argument to be made that the "pay" is the experience, said experience to be "traded" for a real, paying job in the future?

That is the free market exchange that's occurring, experience for work, the more common medium of exchange, money, being rendered effectively irrelevant.

Mike's "fairness" results in a market in which you can pay a low-skill employee minimum wage or nothing. But transfixed by nobility of imposing fairness on the wild and woolly free market all those who might have been employed, albeit at a lower rate of pay, are rendered invisible and, more importantly, mute.

Thanks however to the marvelous inventiveness encouraged by necessity, the free market's found a way around the "fairness" that results in unemployment.

Anonymous said...

One of the interesting aspects to intership pay vs. no-pay that goes unmentioned in *ALL* the articles that I have read on the subject is that internships at technical companies seem to have different standards than internships at, say, advertising agencies.

Google, for example, pays its summer interns. So does Microsoft. And so does the company I work for (my company also pays relocation expenses and rents the interns an apartment and a car). Web searches plus my knowledge of my company's rates suggest that the summer interns in the tech industry (at least on the coasts) get paid about $30/hour.

Not the same as interning at a think-tank, I suspect.

But there is actually quite a bit more to this.

The monetary cost to the company is probably about 1/2 the total cost. I've been in charge of summer interns in the past (and have one showing up in a few weeks for this summer), and one very large cost to the company is the *TIME* spent by a senior technical person monitoring these interns. They require enough time-and-attention that about over one month of *MY* salary (time spent over the summer, plus time spent prepping their tasks) gets dedicated to intern care-and-feeding.

From a purely work-done vs. cost, the summer interns are *NOT* worth it. We could hire temps (or folks in India) for less.

So why do we have them?

The answer is that we like having interns as a way to hire looking 6-18 months ahead. It is *VERY* expensive to hire a competent-but-not-good engineer and interviews are very limited. Summer internships are a way to "test drive" students we might want to hire. If they work out, we can make a job offer with confidence. If they don't work out, we don't make a job offer.

My guess is that for non-technical industries, the time-and-attention to supervise the interns is similar to that in the tech industry *OR* the interns are given "work" to that really doesn't need to be done (and doesn't need to be supervised). In which case paying the interns is a total loss and just isn't going to happen.

The only time that paying these interns to do non-trivial "work" seems to make sense is when you are planning to invest a lot of money in recruiting. I suspect, but do not know, that these other industries don't spend as much as the tech industry in trying to hire, so reasonably well paid internships just don't make sense financially for those industries.

As a country, we *can* make these unpaid internships illegal (and, since I've read the legal guidelines on internships, I suspect that most/all of them already *ARE* illegal), but then the interships just go away. The companies that can't afford to pay their interns won't.

I'm actually fine with this, but it doesn't really have any impact on me, either.

-Mark Roulo

mazenko said...

Very astute, Mark.

Thanks for the insight.

Anonymous said...

What is student teaching if not an unpaid internship?

I was fortunate in that when I went through my credential program, which to me seemed to be almost totally worthless-- more indoctrination than anything else-- I was able to work full-time on an emergency credential for a time, until I accrued enough experience (two years full-time) to qualify for student teaching in my own classroom. But so many poor schmucks that I knew had to do unpaid student teaching, which struck me as adding insult to injury.

If there are good arguments for the practice of requiring student teaching, I can't think of them.

There was a good outcome for me, though, as I was hired at a community college just after I got my credential. All those silly credential classes, which I thought were a total waste of money and time, moved me waaaaaaaaaaay over on the salary schedule. I got a $5K annual raise as a result, when I moved from K-12 to the CC.