Unpaid Internships

Apparently there’s some momentum to regulate unpaid internships. As a veteran of three such forays into indentured servitude, I can only applaud any movement in this direction. Internships can be good: in the best ones, interns gain experience, skills, and exposure to the working world. But most internships are really only valuable because the companies doling them out have made them valuable. Struggling companies need cheap labor, they hire interns for no pay, then will only hire full-time people who have had such internships, thus imbuing those internships with value.

Each of my internships was a little different. One was three days per week, part-time, and I learned a lot. My boss made sure we left early, and got something out of the experience. Another was at a slightly larger organization, slightly less educational, but whenever I logged extra miles (in this case, writing articles), I was rewarded with pay. It was also part-time, two days a week. The last one I did was full-time, 60+ hours per week. Work was near-constant, lunches outside the office were discouraged, and dissent was quickly quashed. Ironically, it was at an unabashedly progressive institution.

On top of those, I also completed two paid internships. Advocates of logic will not be surprised to learn that these were the most productive internships for me and the organization. They paid me a living wage, and no more. I did the work of an entry-level employee for three months. They expected me to do the work of a quality entry-level employee. I got to do quality work. So, if you can afford it, paid internships are mutually beneficial. If you can’t afford it, and your daily operation would collapse without interns for a day, you might want to take another look at your business model.

That said, unnamed employers suggest the DOL guidelines, based on a 1947 Supreme Court ruling, are outdated. That’s probably true. So here’s some criteria for remaining ethically, if not legally above ground:

– Part-time, no more than 24 hours per week.

– Over half of an intern’s tasks should be “productive” and in some way related to the field; filing papers related to such tasks is not actually related a related task. The intern should be learning at least half of the time.

– Be nice to them.

(Via Matt Yglesias)


2 responses to “Unpaid Internships

  1. I’m right there with you, pal. I’ve never done the unpaid internship thing, and I can’t really get my head around how I would be able to make it work.

    I’ve actually talked about this, and the Times story it’s based on, with a few people, and I’ve heard the old “These kids knew what they were getting into, how can they complain” canard. Irregardless of whether that logic is even sound, the idea of companies relying on any sort of unpaid work is pernicious. There’s always going to be someone out there willing to, for instance, write something for the honor of getting a clip. The consequence, as the geniuses at the Awl have put it (http://www.theawl.com/2010/03/the-shadow-editors-last-night-i-dreamt-that-somebody-paid-me), is that if one person is willing to work for Skittles, everyone is eventually going to have to work for Skittles.

    And this is to say nothing of the fact that elite, glossy industries that rely on unpaid interns self-select for the type of elite, glossy young person who can most afford to take on an unpaid internship.

    • Reeves Wiedeman

      Agreed on all counts. I was a victim of the “Will Work For Clips” syndrome, and it ain’t a good disease to spread. The trouble is, how do you tell an unemployed kid trying to get into the industry that he should keep sending out pitch letters that go unreturned, and job applications unanswered, when he could take an unpaid gig and hope for the best? The implications of game theory are overwhelming.

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