Unpaid Internships Are Exploitative

It’s that time of year when many people my age are starting to desperately look for summer internships so that they can eventually be qualified for an entry-level job and aren’t screwed and broke forever.

Too real? Maybe a little.

In many fields–journalism, politics, film, social services, and even many areas of academic research–paid summer internships are the exception, not the rule. Being paid to work full-time is the exception.

It is very difficult, almost impossible sometimes, to explain this situation to people in different fields, people who had paid summer internships starting with their freshman year of college, who got recruited and hired in the middle of their senior year, who started with a comfortably middle-class salary and good benefits in their first full-time job. “Just find a paid internship, then!” they advise me, unhelpfully.

Those of you who have never had to navigate this hell will just have to believe those of us who have.

People who otherwise support living wages (or, at least, wages) bend over backwards to justify unpaid internships. One frequent justification is that they provide valuable experience that looks very good on one’s resume. While that’s true, so do most (paid) jobs. Jobs look excellent on a resume and you often learn a lot from doing them. That doesn’t mean it’s reasonable to ask you to do them for no pay.

Unpaid internships are exploitative. I won’t go as far as some do and call them slavery or indentured servitude, but they’re exploitative all the same. Sure, nobody’s “forcing” people to intern without pay, but if you can’t get a job in the field without it, you’re as good as forced.

“Just choose another field” isn’t an answer. An excellent writer who can’t get a job in journalism because they can’t afford to work for free doesn’t necessarily have the skills to get a job in computer science. And why should only rich people be able to work in journalism, politics, activism, entertainment, or social services? (Don’t even get me started on the dangers of having only rich people working in journalism and social services.)

Sometimes people defend unpaid internships by saying that they did one and found it very fun and educational. That’s nice. I don’t mean that sarcastically; it really is. But that doesn’t make it non-exploitative. Enjoying something–finding it useful, even–does not mean that thing is not part of a system that devalues young people’s work and shuts the gates to certain professions to all but those with lots of resources.

I’ve also had people tell me that unpaid internships are great because that’s how they got jobs afterwards. Right, that’s the problem.

Unpaid internships, at least when run legally, can easily be rationalized as “fair.” The idea is that your supervisors expend a lot of time on educating you and don’t really benefit from your being there, at least not nearly as much as you benefit from being there. What does that sound a lot like? Yup, college, which most people who have to do unpaid internships have already done or are doing (and paying a lot for). Except that college students are often eligible for federal financial aid or scholarships from their schools. Very few sources of aid are available to unpaid interns. (College, by the way, is still vastly unaffordable and exclusionary.)

Sometimes unpaid internships offer academic credit in lieu of payment. However, it seems pretty rare that this credit can replace coursework and facilitate early graduation, and as I just noted, the financial support available during the academic year is often unavailable during the summer.

Regardless, in many cases unpaid internships are illegal–anytime there isn’t a substantial educational component. (Anecdotally, that seems to be most of the time.) I’ve heard people be like “Yeah well internships like that are illegal,” as though that matters. (It’s similar to how people try to use “Yeah well rape’s illegal” as an argument against rape culture.) What intern is going to completely destroy their career prospects and spend a fortune they don’t have on suing their employer? Nobody*. Employers know this.

Unpaid internships don’t just suck because it sucks to work without pay. They also suck because they keep important professions full of the sorts of people who can afford to not have to support themselves until their mid- to late-20s. That also means that they’re a self-perpetuating problem, because until more politicians, journalists, activists, social scientists, and social service workers take on this issue, it’s not going to get better, and the people who succeed in these fields tend to be people who didn’t have all that much difficulty working for free.

(We spend a lot of time in my social work program talking about how it’s still not diverse enough, especially not socioeconomically. Of course it’s fucking not. The cost of attending Columbia’s MSW program is $70,000 a year, plus all the unpaid internships it took to get accepted in the first place.)

I don’t know how to fix this problem. Right now, all the parties involved are acting pretty rationally. Of course organizations, especially non-profits, will opt out of paying their interns, cash-strapped as they often are. Of course interns will accept unpaid internships, knowing that’s their only shot at a job someday, although it’s often still not enough. Of course graduate programs and employers will choose applicants who have relevant work experience, even if it was unpaid, over those who spent their summers working as baristas and lifeguards and babysitters. Of course, of course, of course.

I do know that fixing a problem begins with recognizing that it exists. Recognize that unpaid internships are exploitative.


* Not actually strictly true anymore. Some interns have been filing lawsuits. Unfortunately, this seems to lead employers to stop offering internships altogether rather than to start offering paid ones.

Also, read Sarah Kendzior’s fantastic take on unpaid internships.

Also also, I’m going to give a shout-out to two organizations that offer paid summer internships despite being nonprofits: the Secular Student Alliance and the Center for Inquiry. If you know of other secular/progressive organizations that do the same, leave them in the comments.

Unpaid Internships Are Exploitative
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24 thoughts on “Unpaid Internships Are Exploitative

  1. 1

    Well, and every person who is saying to the people forced into this situation, “Well, just use this solution!” (where that can be any of the foolishness people have suggested as you noted) is tasking an individual with solving a societal problem.

    It’s immoral to ask people with the least power in a situation to be responsible for all the responses to it. This is why we have a society at all: to help provide for those of us who are needing it when that provision is needed, whether that provision is a road for someone who needs to get to work, a fire engine and its staff when that’s needed, or a social worker and their access to the social safety net when they are needed.

    We have government organs like the IRS and the Department of Justice (or in my own country, RevCan and Ministry of Justice) for this kind of purpose. Let’s see them start to be used on everyone, FOR everyone, not just to keep the poor in line. Let’s see them enforce the laws on internships, let’s see public education campaigns on why they’re exploitative and bad for families and for the society (by funneling prime jobs only to the well-heeled, perpetuating inequality and calcifying the new aristocracy). Let’s see a national consensus be built on paying people a reasonable portion of the productivity increase we’re making.

  2. 2

    Some good news: due to the recent lawsuits, at least lawyers are taking notice. I attended a CLE (Continuing Legal Education) course last week all about this topic. It didn’t include much new information, but it DID involve advice on how to advise clients thinking of offering unpaid internships. The #1 piece of advice was: don’t. Pay them minimum wage & overtime.

    The main problem with relying on lawsuits is that it’s not really *interns* filing them. It’s lawyers filing class-action suits against employers who hire large numbers of interns. Smaller employers can generally still do whatever they want, as it’s not actually cost-effective to sue them.

  3. 3

    As someone in a position to “hire” unpaid interns, I’ve decided not to do so going forward. I had a very successful, rewarding, and fun unpaid internship that led to a paid entry-level position quite quickly and I probably won’t be where I’m at in my career without it. I’ve also hired unpaid interns who performed well after they interned for me.

    However, those facts don’t mean it is that way for everyone or even that those situations are moral. Not gonna do it anymore. If we need help, we’ll pay for it.

    1. 3.1

      I’ve since had a few conversations on a listserv with many other professionals after sharing this article that has softened my absolutist stance on this, though in general I still agree with the sentiment (especially where employers are not following the law).

  4. 4

    Thanks for this.
    We don’t have a wide-spread practice of unpaid internships, but it’s starting to catch-on. What we got a couple of years back was a government initiative where you get a job for a year, the employer pays you nothing and you get a small stipend from the unemployment services. When I say small, I mean really small (it takes almost a fourth of it just for a month’s public transport fare).
    The result: no entry-level jobs except over this measure. Why would they pay you if they can get someone for free? Another problem: when that one year is over, they just get another person to work for free.

    I expect internships provide the same opportunity for employers. You are practically forced into an unpaid internship because otherwise, you just can’t get a job.

  5. 5

    Part of me strongly agrees with you. And part of me strongly disagrees with you. Usually a contradiction like this means that the problem is about thirty levels deeper than the particular proposition under debate.

    First is a terminology problem. I don’t like “exploitative” as your adjective here. Some internships cost the company more resources than the intern produces (in terms of senior time, administrative costs, et cetera). I would certainly hesitate to say that the company is “exploiting” the intern in these cases. If anything, they are graciously donating their resources in order to help other people’s careers, and being repaid with vilification and demands that they give even more resources.

    This is definitely true in my own case. I’m a paid medical intern. The government gives my hospital $200,000 a year to train me, which basically consists of letting me work for them under supervision. I am paid less than a quarter of this. The rest is spent on administrative expenses, paying doctors to watch me and put up with my rookie mistakes, insurance in case I accidentally kill someone, et cetera. So their net loss from training me if the government didn’t fund them, even if I were totally unpaid, would be about $150,000. Obviously this is not typical of the average summer internship, but it puts into relief that internships isn’t always a cozy deal for the companies involved.

    (in fact, this is one reason medical care costs so much – the government doesn’t want to send too many $200,000 subsidies, so they artificially restrict the number of internships, which artificially restricts the number of doctors, which means the demand for doctors is much greater than the supply, which decreases time spent per patient and increases prices. This makes me wary of anything that raises the price of internships and so discourages companies from offering them).

    Second, let’s distinguish between stupid resume-building internship and useful skill-training internship.

    I agree with you that the stupid resume-building internship system should be burnt to the ground and then salted so nothing can ever grow there again. It seems to be purely a zero-sum game – everybody works hard to get internships not because they benefit from them, but so that they can push ahead of everyone else. If the whole lot of Harvard and Yale applicants were banned from seeking internships, they wouldn’t have to get an internship to compete with the next guy trying to get into Harvard or Yale and life would be better for everyone.

    But then there are internships that are extremely important ways of getting skills that you can’t get anywhere else, like in the old apprenticeship system. That seemed pretty good at getting poor people into high-skilled jobs pretty efficiently. Certainly I feel it worked a lot better than the “make them go to a four year college for $100,000 to gain book-learning that has no relationship to their actual job” system we have right now. But the apprenticeship system is based around current professionals being willing to let students work with them for minimal pay for a long period. If we force them to pay the apprentices more than the apprentices create in value, apprenticeship gets destroyed and the only route to a career will be paying colleges hundreds of thousands of dollars to get meaningless credentials.

    So when I say that the problem is thirty levels deeper than unpaid internships, I think I mean that we already screwed over the poor when we said that the way you train for a job is by going to a super-expensive four-year institution – not because you expect to learn anything but because it gives you a credential which signals high status. And then we screwed the poor over a little more when we said that in order to get said super-expensive four-year institution to like you enough to give said credential, you need to take more unpaid internships again not because you expect to learn anything from them, but because they further cement you are high status and give you more signaling value.

    if unpaid internships were banned as exploitative, it’s unlikely paid internships would spring up to replace them. I mean, the average internship I’ve been at has been very simple, kind of useless jobs – fetching coffee for people, making copies – something where my entire day’s work could have been done by a competent secretary in an hour. Nobody is going to want to pay an intern minimum wage all day to sit around and learn while fetching the occasional coffee. And if internships in general get tarred as exploitative, companies are going to be less willing to provide them.

    And this is problematic, because I feel like the most likely way to unscrew the poor would probably be through creating more tracks by which people could learn skills through apprenticeships and internships rather than through college. Like if there was a world where a poor kid, instead of having to get into a journalism program at Yale, could volunteer to do some basic research for a writer at the New York Times, and then eventually learn so many journalism skills she could wow the bosses and get her own writing job at NYT, all within a year or so, that would be a step in the right direction.

    So I feel like this might further the gutting of all paths to success or skilled careers that don’t involve paying a lot of money (and taking many years off work) to go to college, and remove a rare option for people who are hard-working but not well-trained in book-learning and college-bureaucracy-navigation (ie everyone but the upper class).

    I’m not sure how one would try to stop upper-class-college-kid summer-job internships while preserving the ones that are necessary for poor kids to succeed.

    1. 5.1

      The thing with useful skill-training internship is that it’s useful. You are being taught something the society needs, and something that the hospital you are being trained at will need. Maybe they will be the ones to employ you in the future.
      They are not ‘doing you a favor’, they are doing something for their own profession and the society.
      That’s not a reason for you not to be paid, that’s a good reason why you should be. If not by them, then by the government (and I mean more than just a pittance).

      if unpaid internships were banned as exploitative, it’s unlikely paid internships would spring up to replace them.

      Some day, robots will take all our jobs, but I think we’ll be safe from that for a while yet. Companies need employees. No matter how much they would all love to get fully trained professionals… someone’s gotta teach those people, and while they’re being taught they need to eat and have someplace to live.

      I got recently got a job at a really decent company. I’m full of questions, I’m sending way too many emails to my mentor. She loses some time doing productive things to show and explain things to me. But I’m also working the best I can, taking work home when needed.

      Getting a decent salary and a steady job on the horizon are one hell of a motivator.

      They are probably losing a little bit right now, since I don’t work to the capacity of other colleagues. But I am getting things done, and I am their long-term investment. (of course, there’s always a risk of an employee leaving after a year or two, but that’s a risk a company just has to take)

      1. “They are not ‘doing you a favor’, they are doing something for their own profession and the society.
        That’s not a reason for you not to be paid, that’s a good reason why you should be. If not by them, then by the government (and I mean more than just a pittance).”

        People who are doing something for “their profession” or “the society” are still engaged in self-sacrifice, and that self-sacrifice is still unlikely if they get nothing in exchange for it and instead are accused of “exploitation”.

        Are you familiar with coordination problems? At the level of society, we need lots of high-skilled workers or the jobs won’t get done. And at the level of an entire industry, yes, the industry has to train new employees or it will implode. But at the level of a single company, there’s no incentive to be the company that has to sacrifice in order to do the training. Far better to let everyone else pay the cost, and then be the ones to hire the newly trained workers.

        This is what happened in medicine before the government stepped in with its $200.000 subsidies. Altruistic rural hospitals in small towns that needed doctors would expend scarce resources to train doctors to work there. Once the doctors were trained, a big hospital in New York would offer them high salaries and the high life in the Big Apple to move there instead, and the small towns would have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars and would continue not to have doctors. There are various laws banning hospitals from making deals like “We will only train you if you agree to work for us for at least ten years afterwards”, and repealing those laws (and so having indentured servitude) would be a heck of a lot more exploitative than unpaid internships.

        Your other solution is that the government subsidize all internships. But as I just explained in medicine, what ends up happening is that the government doesn’t want to spend the money, and we end up with a crippling shortage of important professionals. This also *basically* institutes a command economy since it’s the government’s job to decide which professions are important (and therefore should be subsidized) and which professions aren’t (and therefore should not be subsidized, which when combined with laws that discourage unsubsidized internships, means they won’t happen). Traditionally these sorts of command economies have resulted in huge shortages of some things, huge gluts in other things, and everything being politicized (ie if the government doesn’t like what the media’s doing, it threatens to de-fund media internships meaning there will be no more journalists and the media is forced to shut up).

        1. I’m not sure subsidizing internships or even educations ends up creating the kind of command economy that implodes. I’m assuming that governments subsidize education and job training in most EU nations to a far greater degree than in the US, and the US is clearly closer to falling apart. The BBC is state funded media in the UK, and there were plenty of people bashing Thatcher on the BBC while she was in office.

          The problem is that in the US, people believe in the Magic Market.

          1. Governments in Europe do subsidize education much more than they do in the US (although I don’t think they subsidize internships; I went to school in Europe and the academic-internship process seemed much the same as here).

            I agree that just subsidizing internships would not cause the economy to implode generally. It would just create a command economy in those particular areas. Once again I use the example of medicine, where the number of doctors is totally determined by the government’s decision on how many doctor slots to subsidize, and this has created a huge shortage of medical professionals.

            I am not as optimistic about ability to resist corruption as you are. Yes, the BBC is awesome. But compare to US where, for example, only news organizations that cover the President favorably are given White House press passes. I’m not saying something very heavy-handed would happen like the government only allowing journalism interns to join FOX and not CNN. But think about it. If government were funding internships, it would have to have some decision process for deciding how many internships in each field to fund (just as they now do with medical specialties), and it would be very easy for – in a general climate of hostility to the media – them to decrease that number. Or imagine that different media outlets are competing for lucrative internship spots and the Republicans are pushing for FOX to get more and the Democrats are pushing for CNN to get more. I just feel like anything which increases the media’s dependence on government is a scary thing.

            I don’t understand what point you’re trying to make about internships by claiming the US is “closer to collapse” than Europe. And I’m not sure why you think it’s clearly true. A whole bunch of European countries just had such spectacular economic collapses that they might have gone bankrupt if the European Central Bank (ie mostly Germany) didn’t step in to save them. I lived in one of them at the time. It wasn’t pretty. Greece has a 27.3% unemployment rate and unpayable debt; Spain has a 26.3% unemployment rate and same; Italy, Portugal, and Ireland aren’t much better. There were a couple months back in 2012 when the whole thing was about to fall apart and they were seriously considering jettisoning the Euro so that each country could try to save itself. How is the US “clearly closer to collapse”?

        2. But at the level of a single company, there’s no incentive to be the company that has to sacrifice in order to do the training.

          If the company is run by idiots who can’t think past tomorrow, this is true. Alternately, if you’re presupposing that the only possible incentive is quarterly profits, it could also be true. Those are some big – though perhaps not unjustified, given the state of things – assumptions.

          Also, we don’t pay people wages for productivity (arguably we pay salaries based on productivity), we pay for their time (if we paid people what they were actually worth based on what they produce, there would be no such thing as profit, because the employees would be reaping 100% of the fruits of their labor – in fact, all employment by for-profit entities is exploitation, it’s just worst when the employees isn’t being compensated for zir labor at all). If a company is failing to use its (paid) interns in a productive fashion, they’re doing it wrong, but they still need to compensate the employees for their time. If ending unpaid internships simply ends internships… good. Companies still need workers; they’ll just have to offer job training to the regular employee class instead of using the “internship” label to dodge labor laws.

          Further, academic programs should not be requiring internships, ever. Internships are for job training, and that’s the realm of technical schools, not academia. Thanks to idiotic market pressures, our institutions of higher education are overwhelmingly adopting a trade school model, which is contributing to the ongoing funding issues for actual academic programs, as CEOs – sorry, chancellors – start looking for a cash return on program funding. Capitalism is theft*, and The Market sucks at decision-making, especially with regards to any kind of long-term planning or delayed benefit, even with respect to maximizing profits, which is of course very different than promoting human well-being.

          *Capitalism – a system in which one can make money directly from capital, usually by virtue of owning something – is definitionally and necessarily exploitation. There’s no way to create value without actually doing something i.e. labor, and money is supposed to represent value, so if you’re making money directly from capital without any labor on your part, you’re inevitably exploiting someone, somewhere.

          1. “If the company is run by idiots who can’t think past tomorrow, this is true. Alternately, if you’re presupposing that the only possible incentive is quarterly profits, it could also be true. Those are some big – though perhaps not unjustified, given the state of things – assumptions.”

            I think this is notably wrong. Coordination problems aren’t self-resolving even if everyone involved is very smart. See for example the explanation at http://raikoth.net/libertarian.html#coordination_problems . Unless every company is willing to sacrifice its own best interests for the good of its competitors (ha!) we wouldn’t expect to see changes. Unless you can think of some reason this isn’t a coordination problem.

            “Also, we don’t pay people wages for productivity (arguably we pay salaries based on productivity), we pay for their time (if we paid people what they were actually worth based on what they produce, there would be no such thing as profit, because the employees would be reaping 100% of the fruits of their labor – in fact, all employment by for-profit entities is exploitation, it’s just worst when the employees isn’t being compensated for zir labor at all).”

            AAAAAAAH LABOR THEORY OF VALUE! Just as one could argue that the company is exploiting the workers, since if they paid what the workers’ time was worth, they would get no gains from trade -so one could argue that the workers are exploiting the company, since if they worked as many hours as the company’s money was worth, *they* would get no gains from trade. Both end up with unlikely conclusions like “all possible contracts are exploiting both sides”. This is why this has been pretty universally replaced with the idea that both sides can profit from a transaction. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_theory_of_value#Criticisms

            “Further, academic programs should not be requiring internships, ever. Internships are for job training, and that’s the realm of technical schools, not academia. Thanks to idiotic market pressures, our institutions of higher education are overwhelmingly adopting a trade school model, which is contributing to the ongoing funding issues for actual academic programs, as CEOs – sorry, chancellors – start looking for a cash return on program funding.”

            I think I have exactly the opposite opinion as you do. Like, if colleges were becoming trade schools, that would solve Miri’s problem and the problem of the poor people who can’t afford internships.

            Let me give another example from medicine. In the US system, you go to college for four years, get a bachelor’s degree in anything, and then go to medical school for four years. Total cost: 8 years very expensive tuition. In the European system, you apply to medical school directly out of high school, get in, and study medicine. Total cost: 4 years moderately expensive tuition, mostly paid by the state anyway. This means poor people have a somewhat easier time going into medicine and increases social mobility, and as far as anyone can tell European doctors are just as good as American ones.

            Whenever I ask why the US can’t switch to the European system, people tell me “If we just let people go to medical school straight out of high school, it will become just another trade. We need doctors to be well-rounded in all the liberal arts, and then they will be full human beings.” Meanwhile, they’re locking everyone who can’t afford eight years super-expensive tuition out of the industry based on extremely upper-class values (“Ooh, I know, I want my doctor to speak both Greek and Latin”). Law school works like that as well, as apparently does social work school based on Miri’s post above.

            Compare what happened to nursing. It used to be based on vocational training, and lots of people from every social class were able to get relatively well-paying jobs in nursing. Then they switched it to require a college degree. Now upper-middle-class people go to college and become nurses, and lower-middle-class people become “nurse assistants”, a much less well-paying job that you can get without a degree. Most of the people I know think nurse quality has decreased during that time, probably because instead of the best nurses rising to the top, there’s a strict segregation into nurse assistants who never become full nurses without college degrees, which are hard to afford on a nurse assistant salary.

            So if college chancellors were actually pursuing a trade school model, I’d be overjoyed. But they’re never actually going to do that because it’s contrary to their bottom line. Instead they’re going to go on about the importance of well-roundedness, accept tens of thousands of dollars to teach students various humanities or pre-med/pre-law/pre-whatever, and then when the new graduates ask about a job tell them they’re welcome to go to the post-graduate school, conveniently owned by the same university, if only they’re willing to pay an extra $70,000 dollars.

            Thanks for explaining how capitalism is theft. I feel like your response would really have been missing something without that.

    2. 5.2

      I agree that journalism school is terrible, but unpaid internships are not the correct solution. Journalism only became professionalized relatively recently. There is a traditional way that people train to be journalists. They have to spend a couple years earning very little money to write the stories that are really boring, involve waking up in the middle of the night, and/or are so easy a monkey could probably write them. This allows the company to get benefit– the job is legit awful so they’d probably have to pay an experienced journalist a *lot* more to work it– and the trainee journalist to get paid.

    3. 5.3

      Your analogy of unpaid internships to apprenticeship doesn’t quite work because apprentices did have legal protections which included provision of room and board and often some amount of clothing. An unpaid internships do not provide interns with even this amount of compensation. If you cannot afford to pay your rent, feed and clothe yourself while also working for zero pay you cannot access an internship. An apprenticeship may or may not have involved an upfront fee paid to the workshop/master craftsman, contracts varied, but an individual or workshop that took on an apprentice was obligated to provide for that apprentice’s basic physical needs.

      1. Last I checked, trade apprenticeships (plumbing, electricians and the like) actually pay the apprentices a decent amount of money per hour – certainly above average for wages. There are fees to be a member of a trade union, but I actually don’t know if they have to pay fees. I do know you have to take a test.

  6. 6

    And why should only rich people be able to work in journalism, politics, activism, entertainment, or social services?

    That’s perhaps the primary point of making unpaid internships the way to get into these professions – to make sure that it is mostly those with rich – or at least, quite well-off – parents who can enter them. The supply of rewarding graduate jobs has stopped expanding, while the number of graduates has not. as a result, social mobility has declined – and this is one of the main mechanisms that ensures the children of the rich get first pick.

  7. 7

    Could not agree more. I majored in something where paid internships were the rule not the exception (finance/economics). However, after a year at my mind-numbing finance job I decided I wanted to pursue public relations. Well, guess what? The PR industry is very discriminatory against individuals who didn’t do PR internships in college. And most PR internships are either unpaid or very underpaid (no, I don’t count $8/hr as decent pay – that’s barely minimum wage). As an experienced professional, in order to break into the industry I had to take two internships – one at $10/hr and one at $11/hr – just to get an entry-level job. Awesome.

    Even more ironic is the fact that employers use the “but you get college credit!” argument. Right, so…. I’m paying money to my college (to get the credit hours), so I can do work for someone, so I can check off a box on my degree requirements. Not only am I not being paid, I have to vomit money in order to do an internship. Ridiculous.

  8. 8

    For anybody suggesting that the solution to unpaid internships is for everybody to major in computer science, that field has unpaid interns as well, just perhaps a much smaller %. Even if changing majors was feasible for many students in other fields, if the number of potential interns increased, more companies would just start hiring unpaid interns.

    On the idea that some work is necessary, but that it costs too much for any firm to handle training a new person *unless* that comes with some guarantee that they’ll be there in the future ( so the investment is repaid) the situation represents a market failure, where it’s not in anyone’s incentive to do what is socially beneficial since, on an individual level, it doesn’t make economic sense. The solution for ANY market failure is to use the government to provide funding so the useful and necessary thing gets done.

    Take medicine , the example from 5 – why in the fuck isn’t funding for the education and training of doctors NOT a proper role for government? We do need doctors. The same for social workers, and any number of other occupations. In a sensible nation, it would just be accepted that the market isn’t going to provide in some areas, and that government has to step in with some funding, but it’s heresy to too many USians who believe in the Magic Market that Solves Everything, all of whom must have failed econ 101 to believe such nonsense.

    1. 8.1

      >> “The solution for ANY market failure is to use the government to provide funding so the useful and necessary thing gets done.”

      Yes, I agree, but “market failure” has a very specific meaning which is not the same as “the market has failed to make this industry end up the way I wanted it” . For example, houses cost too much and this is a big problem, but the solution isn’t for the government to buy everyone a house.

      If a market is actually failing, and the government responds by pumping money into it, that just incentivizes the behavior that made it fail in the first place. For example, if we responded to houses costing too much by the government promising to buy everyone a nice house, then the price of houses would go up, not down.

      I think this actually happened with colleges. The government noticed that college cost too much for most people to afford, so it decided to pump money into the system through various forms of easily-available student loan. This did make a lot of poor people take out loans to go to college, which increased demand for college, which meant colleges could charge higher prices. College costs rose tenfold in the past thirty years, which is way above inflation and left everyone except the richest few percent with crippling debts they would spend the rest of their lives paying back. Meanwhile, since the need for skilled workers didn’t increase with the college population, employers responded by becoming much more selective and only hiring people with postgrad degrees. The end result is that everyone became hopelessly in debt, jobs became near-impossible without a college degree, and social mobility is actually lower than ever.

      And I’m worried about the whole “fund internships by making government pay for them” because it seems likely to create a similar dynamic – along with general “we can’t afford it” and “increase role of government in everything” worries.

      >> “Take medicine , the example from 5 – why in the fuck isn’t funding for the education and training of doctors NOT a proper role for government? We do need doctors.”

      Yes, but what I’m saying is that the government is in charge of funding the education and training of doctors now, and it is a horrible disaster.

      For example, right now there is a crippling shortage of several important medical specialties, including primary care and general surgery. Doctors are retiring and there’s no one around to replace them. It has gotten so bad that my father (a primary care doctor) can’t find anyone to take over his very profitable clinic and is probably going to have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars out-of-pocket to lure someone in just so he’s not leaving his patients without care. Surgeons are even worse.

      Meanwhile, there are thousands of very qualified people knocking at the doors of medical schools asking to be trained in surgery and general practice, and the medical schools are turning them away because there are not enough internships for everyone. There are not enough internships for everyone because the government put very tight regulations on training, no one could afford to meet them, the government grudgingly solved the problem by agreeing to subsidize all medical internships, but politicians don’t want to increase the budget for this much beyond its 1990s level even though there are more people now and they’re older and sicker.

      The market of course isn’t magic, but it has feedback loops. So four-year colleges – the part of the process exposed to the market – have great pre-med enrollment numbers partially because lots of students are lured in by the promise of high salaries as a doctor. The medical schools are complicated because they try to predict internship opportunities and not admit more students than there will be internships when they graduate, but students get around that by going to medical schools in the Caribbean that lack such qualms – there is no shortage of medical students either. It’s just when we get to the government-funded part of the process – the internships – that we hit a huge wall. This is no skin off doctors’ backs – they get much higher salaries – but it’s awful for aspiring doctors and it’s awful for patients.

      So I’m not operating off the belief that the market is magic and can do no wrong – just off the belief that the one case where we’ve tried to solve this problem with government funding so far, everything works really well up until the point where government funding comes in, and then suddenly the system becomes awful.

      (I realize it’s unfair of me to ask you to take this on faith; if you want I can provide links to sources that report on some of these problems)

      And if the government can’t get the political will together to pay for doctors, who are politically popular because they directly save people’s lives, what is their chance with something like journalists?

      If you have a proposal to fix government so that it will fund all internships at exactly the necessary level – without stupid political football stuff – then I can’t say I’ll be totally on board with the idea, but it sounds like at least a necessary prerequisite.

      This is why simplistic platitudes like “Oh, you believe that the market is magic because you’re dumb libertarians!” “No, YOU believe that GOVERNMENT is magic because you’re dumb socialists!” aren’t always the best way to debate.

  9. 9

    “Unpaid internships” used to be for companies that offered high paying jobs. The goal was to keep “those” qualified people out (e.g. the poor, usually not white) because they couldn’t afford to work for free for up to a year. In “true libertarian american capitalism”, those idiots seem to want unpaid labour for minimum wage jobs – you have to work for free before you get minimum wage, never mind get paid at the poverty line.

    It’s amazing how stupidly the “experts” act, unable to grasp that cost cutting to increase profit margins means cutting your own throat. It’s almost as if those people want the US economy to collapse.

  10. 10

    This is one of those cases where a little thought about labor relations would help, I think.

    Yvain– the big problem is that you are in a field where in the US, anyway, the internship in medicine is basically the way you get any job at all, and it is paid, and in the US (I know it is a bit different in Europe) the pay for specialists, anyway, is pretty good, so the net result for people isn’t too bad. I will say it is highly dependent on which specialty you choose; primary care here is under-paid, relatively speaking. The point is that the structure is a bit different — most medical expenses are paid by private insurance here. (Or more accurately, a patchwork of private and semi-public and public systems).

    In any case, many industries have adopted the “medical model” — journalism was the one that seemed to take to it most, back in the early 90s. On the face of it it’s not terrible, but it wasn’t long before a lot of the internships were unpaid. I think the most egregious example was the Village Voice, which offered me an unpaid gig a a time when I simply could not afford it. I didn’t take it. (Had they even paid freelance rate, that would have been ok, but they weren’t).

    The simplest solution is to can the whole system. You work, you get paid — even if it is as a freelancer/ contractor. This may be a blunt solution, but in the medical profession in particular it won’t make a lot of difference. You can’t eat experience, valuable as it is. I don’t write for “exposure” for anyone but myself.

    At a minimum, in areas such as journalism, anyone who writes a goddamn story ought to at least get what you pay the freelancers. In other professions a per diem at the very least. It’s no accident, by the way, that when I got my first internship at the Buffalo News it was a heavily unionized workplace and the internship paid enough to at least get by.

    But from a labor relations perspective, the whole thing is set up to give many companies essentially free labor. You simply can’t make the case that an intern gets any benefit from fetching the bloody coffee. I did one unpaid gig at a radio station, and at least there I learned to cut tape. (Yes, in those days you literally cut tape to edit). But too many don’t even do that. A lot of unpaid internships the only thing you get to say is “I worked at X place” and hope the shine rubs off on you. The whole thing further undercuts workers who are there already, and even the paid ones years back were problematic — the Baltimore Sun had a gig that went for two years, though at least they paid you, and afterwards you have a portfolio.

    It’s really all of a piece when one sees the move to temporary employees, people who have no rights or benefits. It’s no accident that the internship model appeared in the more labor-intensive professions first. Social services is one of those I expect. It’s also no accident that it appears in more “glamorous” areas such as entertainment, where kids will take a lot of abuse because they want to be in the business. (I have a sibling who put it thus: it’s an industry where infantile behavior is rewarded).

    To be fair, some institutions are forced into this as well — if you underfund every cultural institution enough (I am thinking of museums and the like), then they will only be able to take on unpaid interns. But nonprofits can be toxic this way too — I have seen more than one where the directors get a rather large salary and are happy to blow millions on a new building, when it might be better put to getting working class kids paid to do various jobs they could do — and educating them to boot.

    (And by the way, the argument that an intern benefits more than the place they are at is shaky sometimes. If I don’t pay someone for three months at minimum wage, that’s ~$3,000 or so of labor I got from them. In exchange they get what amounts to a lottery ticket, and not even three thousand dollars worth of it).

  11. Pen

    I’m late, but… what I’d really like to see is all employers forced by law to post a little sign on their establishments, products, advertising, websites, etc.. telling us exactly what pay bands and levels of stability their employees have, and how much they’ve actually paid in taxes relative to their profit. Rather like the nutritional content labels on food. Then we can pick and choose. Someone could even come up with a ‘Fair Work’ certification and log to make it simpler for us. I know it’s not foolproof, but I suspect it’s a lot better than nothing.

    Anyone got a clue how you go about ironing out the details of an idea and campaigning for a new law? I’m in the UK, but answers for any country will do.

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