Unpaid Internships: The New Indentured Servitude?

I have been thinking for some time about the issue of unpaid internships for college students. Initially, I was in favor of them as they seemed to do exactly what they purport to do: provide some real-world work experience for kids who no longer have summer jobs, after-school jobs, part-time jobs, work-study jobs, co-op jobs or any of the mechanisms by which people of my generation acquired work experience. We, umm, worked.

Internships = Free Work

unpaid interns, internshipsBut as the concept of internships expanded and they became essential for college students to be eligible for real post-graduation jobs, I got the unsettling feeling that companies were exploiting them to acquire free workers. I won’t call them employees because you’re only employed if you are paid.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, a young, eager new college graduate defends the internship system because it’s how she gained valuable knowledge about the work world—even though she interned for a House committee in the decidedly un-real world of Washington DC.  In “Summer Interns Don’t Need ‘Intern Advocates,’” Kate Batchelder makes a good case for internships as she understands their advantages.  The article is well written and she makes her case well. The problem is that she—necessarily—sees the internship system only from the student’s perspective, and unclearly at that.  

From the organization’s side, the advantages are very clear: you get a cadre of young and enthusiastic people to do grunt work for free. And it gets even better: they also subsidize you.

No Pay, No Benefits

They don’t add to the organization’s cost of benefits because they don’t receive any.  They (or, more accurately, their parents) pay for their own medical and dental costs.  Interns also don’t increase training costs because they don’t participate in training programs. The department managers are supposed to train them. In my experience, sometimes managers do a good job of teaching the intern and sometimes they basically ignore him or her.  

Unpaid interns not only do the work for free, they pay for the privilege by covering their own commuting costs, whether by train, car, or public transit. They must buy their own gas, pay their own tolls and parking, purchase their own transit tickets. They also pay for coffee, lunches, etc. and build up a work wardrobe. Companies typically don’t cover those costs for employees, of course, so it’s a wash for them but the interns must spend money to work for free. Sweet deal, huh?

This kind of training on the job used to be called indentured servitude. Indentured servants lived with and learned from a master until skilled enough to produce his masterpiece and go out on his own as a master craftsman. That means even indentured servants received room and board. Hmm.

Paying for an Internship

Wait, it gets worse.

unpaid interns, internshipsIn some highly desired industries, the interns (or their parents) pay the company for the internship. That’s right; these shameless organizations demand money for the right to do their work for free. There’s even a placement company—University of Dreams—that charges students (or their parents) from $5,000 to $10,000 to “place” them in internships in certain industries, cities, and companies. Now that’s a sweet deal for any organization. A company called International Internships has the tagline: “Work the planet.”  I guess it’s better than working the streets.

@WSJ’s Ms. Batchelder argues that the primary value of an internship is to “help students land a job when 80% of hires happen through networking.” But how does she think students land the internships in the first place?  “Most companies and organizations are careful to make sure that internships go to people from diverse backgrounds—providing networking opportunities that were once available strictly to the offspring of the well-connected.”Ain’t innocence sweet?

Organizational Legacy

Most internships go to the children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and other family members of the organization’s employees, particularly the management team. It’s an organizational legacy system. Networking starts early. That also means the students who can’t afford to work for free are excluded from the process.

While all of this strikes me as both immoral and unconscionable, Ms. Batcheler says it’s all worth it because internships help students land a job after graduation. Yet she is a recent graduate with three internships under her belt, including one “fantastically rewarding” one, but no job. So does that really work? 

According to a recent article in @TheAtlantic by Jordan Weissmann, “Do Unpaid Internships Lead to Jobs? Not for College Students,” the data say no. Mr. Weissmann quotes several studies that show “unpaid interns fared roughly the same or worse on the job market compared to non-interns across a variety of fields . . .”

The Mystery of Internships

unpaid internships, interns

Calling Dr. Intern

Why?  After exploring factors such as different majors and GPA scores, Mr. Weismann finds this “a bit of a mystery.” I think the two answers are obvious.

  • First, organizations use unpaid internships to avoid hiring entry-level employees. That means fewer entry-level jobs are available for new graduates.
  • Second, unpaid interns have demonstrated their willingness to work for nothing.  That just may indicate to hiring companies that the work they were doing had no value. After all, the idea is that you get paid what you’re worth — thus that you’re only worth what you’re paid.

And who wants an employee who has no worth?