Oooh, I've got my angry face on for this one!

Oooh, I've got my angry face on for this one!

Unpaid internship. The term sends shudders of anxiety through many of the world’s ambitious 20-somethings. How much should you have to sacrifice, how much poverty should you have to endure, how much debt should you have to incur to get the work experience without which no employer takes you seriously? And how does it skew the job market to favor the rich? These questions have been on my mind recently because of a couple of articles I’ve run across, and a couple of heated conversations I’ve had. So I thought I’d try to sit down and sort out my thoughts on the subject.

Naomi Klein, in No Logo, first clued me into the shady scam that is the current world of internships many years before I would truly understand how demoralizing the underlying concept of that world is (mainly through experiences of friends of mine). To be honest, I did not have any sort of nightmare experience myself, it was quite positive. The fact was that, due to my legal status, I could not even be hired by the place I had my internship even if they had wanted to. So given my already shit shit shit situation (being frickin’ illegal), it was a pretty good opportunity. But yes, I also spent all my savings in the process and had to start from zero. (Also to be mentioned – if I had been legal, they wouldn’t have paid me anyways).

To begin, Ms. Klein sums up the problem in No Logo

One thing you can say about the retail and service industries: at least they pay their workers a little something for their trouble. Not so for some other industries that have liberated themselves from the chains of social security forms with such free market gusto that many young workers receive no pay at all. Perhaps predictably, the culture industry has led the way in the blossoming of unpaid work, blithely turning a blind eye to the unglamorous fact that many people under thirty are saddled with the mundane responsibility of actually having to support themselves. [emphasis mine]

That’s the crux of it, isn’t it? That, even if it is to gain essential experience, it’s work, and you need to live off your labor.

So, my first point of contention is the fairness point: Is this type of system morally justified?

One line of justification goes “Apprenticeships have been around forever!” conjuring the quaint image of a medieval craftsman. Ahhh yes, apprenticeships are an old concept. And the terms of apprenticeship were often very harsh – you might be committed to several years of training! But people seem to forget that the master also had an obligation to his apprentice – food, shelter, etc… In fact, I’ve read that apprentices often lived in the master craftsmen’s homes! Do you think the unpaid grunt fetching coffee for television studio execs has a back room in the producer’s house? Ha! Similarly, as his or her needs for survival were taken care of my the master, the apprentice at the stone mason’s didn’t have to work nights at McDonald’s in order to eat. Also, some sort of employment was often guaranteed upon completion of the apprenticeship. Not true of any internship I’ve ever encountered (though I’m sure some exist). So yes – it’s just like apprenticeships – except all of the security is stripped away!

“Oh, but its a privilege to work there”, another line of logic goes. The company’s are being generous with their time to train you, let you learn the trade, you should be thankful for all you will learn! But this is dishonest is it not? Are they really being generous? Don’t these companies need you? They need a next generation and they need someone to do these menial tasks. However if they can convince you its generous of them to let you work there for free, well, all the better for their bottom line. And how about the generosity of talented young people who donate thousands of dollars of their labor to giant, wealthy companies? Employers are effectively letting young people subsidize their businesses with free labor, within industries that need those next generation workers anyway. Wow, yeah. That’s crazy generous of them.

Now it must be said, I can understand the situation of some nonprofit that really can’t afford to pay someone and offers good training and opportunities in return, so if someone’s willing to help out, everyone wins. But let’s leave those aside. Plenty of these valuable internships are with HUUUUUUUGE and hugely influential companies. They CAN afford to pay. They just don’t want to. They prefer to take advantage of the fact that people will trample each other in these industries for work experience, just as robber barons would take advantage of the poor to drive wages down. The threat is the same: “You don’t want to do it for our price (free)? We’ll find someone else.” And all to line their already padded pockets.

It was an article in Salon today, Opportunity For Sale!, by Timothy Noah, which finally spurred this long-gestating rant. Noah writes about the fact that internships are routinely being put up for sale, at auctions, finally doing away with any pretense that selection would have to do with anything but money.

Three years ago, Ellen Gamerman reported in the Wall Street Journal on a deeply discouraging trend: Summer internships were being put up for bid at charity auctions for elite private schools. You could see immediately how so grotesquely inegalitarian a practice might evolve. Corporate bigwigs felt they were making a noble sacrifice by donating internships to their kids’ place of learning. Private—ahem, I mean “independent”—schools were usually scrupulous in dedicating the proceeds to scholarship programs. Winning bidders were making generous charitable contributions (these items didn’t go cheap), officially recognized as such by the Internal Revenue Service, which allowed a tax deduction for the bid amount spent in excess of market value. Within this tiny bubble of human interaction, all parties were doing good. Outside it, they were conspiring to make life even more of a rigged game than it already is.

Naomi Klein weighs in on this as well:

This racket is not only exploitative in the classic sense, it also has some very real implications for the future of cultural production: today’s interns are tomorrows managers, producers and editors and as [Jim Frederick, former intern overseer at Men’s Journal magazine] writes “If you can’t get a job unless you’ve had an internship, and you can’t get an internship unless you can get supported by daddy for a couple of months, then the system guarantees an applicant pool that is decidedly privileged.”

This is not to say that EVERY intern is a spoiled unqualified brat. I know many struggling people who are incredibly able and who are WORTH A PAYCHECK. They take loans, spend savings, and basically contribute to a less financially secure future by dedicating themselves to their passions. I have to salute their dedication. The idea is that overall, in general, the system inevitably eliminates candidates that need money. Bottom line.

Which brings us to point of contention number two the practicality point: is this type of system even practical or desireable for the industries invovled?

Leaving aside now the question of whether it is fair that the rich kids get more opportunities, let’s ask if this is even desirable, practical, or productive overall.

The Independent, in its recent article Time to End The Work Experience Scam, argues from the example of nepotism in the workplace:

It is bad for the professions – and the country. Talent is distributed throughout the population – but we are only picking from a tiny tier, based on their parents’ bank balance. Imagine if the England football team was made up of the sons of the 1966 winners and their mates. How would they perform? Imagine if films could be cast using only the children of actors. How many talents would we exclude?

We don’t have to speculate: a recent study showed just how corrosive nepotism is. Social scientists at the London School of Economics wanted to discover why Britain’s productivity was so much lower than many rivals, and they found the single biggest cause was our large number of family-run businesses. By definition, these businesses do not seek out the best person, they simply hand them on to their kids. The LSE researchers wrote: “Half of the difference between British companies [and others] is due to the number of second generation-run businesses … If you want to ruin your family business, give it to your eldest son.”

Nepotism in the professions draws on a slightly wider pool: it is not just your own kids but the children of other rich people.

“But what can we do?” people shrug. “If people will take it for free, there’s nothing to do.” What do we do? We do what we did when we realized that children were being used in sweatshops. What do we have done when we saw that people, through brutally exploitative and manipulative conditions of competition, were being paid starvation wages. WE MAKE A LAW SAYING IT’S NO GOOD. We set a minimum wage, for example. If everyone has to do it, if all businesses must comply, then no company can have a competitive advantage by squeezing free labor out of people. It pretty simple.

And they’re thinking about it in the UK. From the Independent again:

Gordon Brown this week proposed to shut this scam down. He wants the Government to pay for three months of work experience for everyone, and six months for people from the poorest families. This would mean that, for the first time, significant numbers of people would be financially able to get on the first rung of the professions. He has commissioned Alan Milburn, the former health secretary, to figure out how to make sure poorer young people have access to the best work experience placements.

Simple enough. Of course the conservatives were appalled. But could we not say that such a system would re-institute some of the values of an old apprenticeship system – where employers held a certain responsibility? Here, instead of an individual craftsman taking on the care of his specific laborer-in-training, the government takes on responsibility for laborers-in-training as a whole. The other option is to cross our collective, poor, hardworking fingers and just hope that the business world will simply stop taking advantage of getting labor for free, and and take it upon themselves to fairly nurture a robust next generation of workers. Right.