Internships: a time-honored tradition in which young professionals gain valuable career experience and skills they can’t learn in the classroom. Internships are widely recognized as a great way to boost your resume and get a leg up over your peers in the job market. For many industries, they’re a rite of passage and an invaluable part of the workforce.
Yet there’s something horribly wrong with most internships as we operate them here in the bestest country on Earth.
Trigger warning: today’s lesson includes mentions of privilege and unfavorable descriptions of capitalism. Also law-breaking. Clutch your pearls and avert your eyes.
The Catch-22 of industry experience
More and more employers are requiring entry level employees to have industry experience in order to get hired. Get that? You have to have a job to get a job, a requirement that necessitates ripping the fabric of the space time continuum in order to get hired.
That or getting an internship. Young people are basically forced to take on internships as a necessary step toward getting a job. And companies therefore understand they can rely on young professionals to work for experience rather than more tangible compensation (read: COLD HARD CASH, YO).
And we all know what we Bitches think of working for free:
- Stop Undervaluing Your Freelance Work, You Darling Fool
- Should Artists Ever Work for Free?
- Freelancer, Protect Thyself: The Importance of a Fair Contract
Employers are thinking of their bottom lines. Free labor saves companies a lot of money. And while they’re frugally using this free labor, they imagine themselves to be benevolently providing young people with valuable experience that they can then use to get a good job in the industry because they require that said young’uns have said experience in order to get a job in the industry!
In effect, it’s treating “experience” as being as good as actual money.
… and interns as good as indentured servants.
The privilege of working for free
Experience does not pay the bills. Free snacks and other workplace perks are nice, but again: not legal tender. So compensating internships with anything but coin of the realm is rather exclusionary.
Of course, this puts people from low income families at a significant disadvantage in the job market. One can only work for free if one has a significant financial safety net to fall back on.
For kids from wealthy families, that’s easy! Lots of people from privileged financial backgrounds rely on their parents to keep them fed, housed, and transported while they intern for free. But what is a kid from a low-income family supposed to do? They literally can’t afford to spend the work day interning for no pay. They need to spend that time making money to support themselves, because nobody else is going to do it for them.
A company offering unpaid internships might as well include “three months of living expenses saved up” or “rich family” under their list of job qualifications.
And while someone without a cushy financial safety net can still work a part time job on the side while interning, it can be hard to find a job with a schedule flexible enough to work around an internship. Plus there’s the whole killing-yourself-working-long-hours-at-multiple-jobs-every-day-without-taking-a-break thing.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions
Some states have tried to combat this disparity by making it illegal to hire interns without offering them some kind of compensation. But naturally, there are all kinds of ways to get around such a rule.
As they say, “The road to Hell is paved with well-intended but poorly-conceived legislative solutions that make the problem worse.”
In Massachusetts, for example, most internships either pay minimum wage or sign off on the intern receiving college credit in exchange for their work, essentially treating the internship as just another college class. As we’ve discussed before, minimum wage ain’t shit. And “college credit”? Fool, students need to pay their schools for college credit!
In this arrangement, the student still has to pay their school for the credits they earned by “going to class” at their internship. So not only are they working for free… they’re paying to work.
As if this wasn’t vomit-inducing enough for you, this system also specifically closes internships to those who aren’t college students. Which is another great way to shit on the poor who can’t afford a college education.
Both sides now
I’ve had three internships in my lifetime.
During my first summer internship, I worked part time at a factory (a book bindery, actually, so it totally counted as “””publishing industry experience”””) making minimum wage while I lived at my parents’ house. I rode the bus and subway for an hour and a half three mornings a week in order to get to my internship in the city.
This was in a state that required interns be compensated with college credit. So I forged the paperwork to make it look like I was getting college credit for my internship experience. My supervisor didn’t know the difference, and my school didn’t know I was even doing an internship that summer.
Now, this is absolutely wrong and illegal. But honestly? I have no ethical qualms about it.
I needed that damn internship to get work experience in the publishing industry. And I didn’t have a single day off all summer long: I was either interning for free, or working my paid job. I couldn’t afford to pay for those credits, and I couldn’t afford to graduate and enter the job market without an internship. So I got the resume booster I needed to get ahead in my industry, and the company got the free labor it so desperately wanted.
But when, seven years later, I became the internship coordinator for my company, I found myself in a position to make change. At last, I could put action to my convictions and make sure interns were paid fairly for their labor!
Except it wasn’t that easy. I was caught between a rock and the immovable inertial force of socioeconomic norms. Staff members desperately needed part-time help, but the company couldn’t afford to pay a part-time worker. Meanwhile, we had college students and recent graduates basically beating down our doors, begging for that sweet, sweet internship experience.
I asked for compensation for my interns every goddamn semester and it was never approved. “It’s just not in the budget. But marketing could really use an extra pair of hands this fall!” Short of marketing… growing extra hands… we needed interns.
So I hired unpaid interns… and gave them each a $100 gift card at the end of each semester. $100 for three months of part-time work. It was the best I could do and I’m still angry with myself for not being able to do better.
So there you have it. Once again capitalism rears its ugly head and the most vulnerable are the ones to pay the price. For now, we all just consider unpaid internships a necessary evil. But I don’t think it’s right, and I think we need to find a better solution for change.
Got an internship story? Share with the whole class in the comment below! Those who supervise interns will receive partial credit for their work.