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May 31, 2006


I penned a post critiquing Anya Kamenetz's op-ed against internships yesterday and sparked some interesting debate, so let's continue this a bit. A couple points seem worth extending:

• You can't "make" internships paid positions. You can outlaw internships, which will transform some fraction of them into jobs and do away with the rest. You'll also find it tricky to distinguish between volunteering (can I "volunteer" with The American Prospect for a summer?) and the now-outlawed category of unpaid internships. My guess is neither Kamenetz nor my readers want The Nation to stop providing internships, they just want law firms to pay their interns. Problem is, you can disentangle the two. That there already exist some paid internships simply proves that institutions who value the work and can afford the expense are paying.

• There's some belief that the primary worth of internships is through unpaid labor to employers. I'm skeptical. It's rather inefficient to be cycling through series of young laborers, retraining new sets with every season. Hiring one person who can become experienced and proficient at the work and remain for a sustained period of time is likely a better deal.

As it is, I'd guess the main benefits of internships are 1) for employers to discover new talent and 2) for interns to discover if they like the profession/workplace. But they can only serve that function when many different applicants can occupy short-term positions, which is not a particularly efficient way to manage paid spots. Force employers to pay interns and most of them will simply cease hiring interns, particularly for those internships which fulfill the try-before-you-buy function I'm identifying. This is a long way of saying internships exist because they are unpaid. Otherwise they'd be a massively inefficient allocation of resources, and the spots would dry up. The American Prospect, which has four new interns starting tomorrow, simply couldn't afford to pay them. We're not even hiring a new writing fellow this year. Would it really be a better outcome if these kids couldn't try out magazine work?

• Internships are massively class-biased. The answer, however, isn't to kill internships, but to make interning financially feasible down the income ladder. Many colleges already do this, allowing students to apply for grants and stipends. Liberals should want to extend these opportunities to try more vocations and find a fulfilling workplace, not limit them. And since when are we against new and exciting subsidy programs!?

It's also worth noting that internships aren't necessarily making various jobs more class-biased than they already are. Everything in our society is class-biased, and given that colleges tend to subsidize internships for their low-income students, the real choke point is in getting to college, not in the DNC's summer interns program. But that shouldn't distract from the above graf. If the problem is internships, kill them off. But if the problem is their financial burden for the poor, fix that. Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater and such.

• Haven't internships always been around? They were just called apprenticeships before.

• Kamenetz's argument that internships will fundamentally reorient the worker-employer relationship by making the worker overly grateful and less sympathetic to unions is literally one of the oddest arguments I've ever heard. Low wage workers have always been the most fertile ground for unions, while high wage workers have seen little need for further bargaining power. Interns, in any case, aren't future low wage workers. There's a reason SEIU is worried about Wal-Mart rather than Goldman-Sachs.

• For more, read Andrew Samwick and, particularly, Wil Wilkinson, whose rebuttal to her first paragraph is one of the funnier rejoinders I've read recently.

May 31, 2006 | Permalink


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Interns are just another name for employee. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act most interns for most organizations are entitled to the minimum wage (a realatively trivial $5.15 per hour under federal law but higher under many state laws) and overtime should they exceed 40 hours during a workweek. It may be the case that many, or even most, organizations don't pay the required wages but they do so in violation of the FLSA. The employer is probably violating other employment laws as well.

Posted by: dmh | May 31, 2006 4:19:10 PM

And since when are we against new and exciting subsidy programs!?

Shh, Ezra, we're not supposed to admit this! Repeat after me — big government is not an end in itself!

Posted by: Vance Maverick | May 31, 2006 6:24:02 PM

Ezra, you continue to use words like "make", "force" and "outlaw", when I've seen nothing like that from people who critiqued your post and your reponses. This is about the distinctions between different kinds of internship opportunities - paid and unpaid. I think Kamenetz's article was interesting in that it asked a question that's a little embarrassing for some companies (not necessarily non-profits, but still) that don't pay, or lowball, for not especially good reasons: does the work have worth or doesn't it? I think Wilkinson, and you, to a lesser extent, read a lot more into it, but I have to admit I wasn't taking this that passionately. I only jumped in because as we get ready to receive our (paid) summer interns, it's been top of mind.

You also asked about some reasons for bringing in interns, so here's, generally, my company's thinking:

- it's a good chance to expose undergrads and MBA students to our culture and the work we do

- it's a chance for them to get exposure to the field that interests them

- it's a lower cost alternative to cover some work over the summer where we might otherwise recruit a full timer or freelancer

- ultimately, interns who perform well will get an offer of employment upon graduation, providing us with a steady stream of entry-level hires

So the thing is, I think it's all the things you describe. Yes, it's lovely if an intern gets a good learning experience, but if we didn't have work that needed doing, well, we wouldn't bring them in. As you mention, interns require some management, they're green, and don't necessarily know how everything works. Still, don't sell energetic, interested college kids short. Our interns amaze us with the quality of their work, their intelligence, and their ability to dive in and do the work.

I am sympathetic to the notion that non-profits have a considerable dilemma, and my understanding of the economics of publishing gives me some sense that paying interns is hard. But still - some of the internship game is companies (and some non-profits bringing in people who won't be treated well for little or no pay for no good reason. This notion of tax breaks, grants, and/or subsidies is interesting, but I don't think any proposed solution is simple, and I don't think organizations and employers should be let off the hook too easily. In addition to clear demonstration of student need, it would seem to me that clear demonstration that a company can't somehow provide for an intern seems also worth investigating.

I don't doubt that The Prospect is doing great work exposing kids to internship opportunities they might not otherwise have, but I think the challenge to everyone running an intern program is that we could do better. We could be more diverse, we could be more creative, we could try and expose a wider group of students to a wider group of opportunities. That takes money, and it also takes a commitment to do more to pave the way from higher education to the workplace. And yes, part of that is a role for government. But it's more than that, and I'd challenge you to think more broadly about what the non-profit and for-profit sectors could do to widen the field of opporunity. No one who cares about growing and developing new talent would want internships to die. But grow and change? Sure.

Posted by: weboy | May 31, 2006 6:57:57 PM

Oh, I forgot. Employers found not paying employees (interns) minimum wage and overtime are subject to double the back wages and attorneys fees through private litigation. Should the Department of Labor do the enforcement, it means back wages and the possibility of civil money penalties and an injunction.

This country has had one rock solid principle handed down by the New Deal: if you work you get paid. There are rare exceptions (volunteer firefighters, Scout leaders, etc.) that don't apply to most internship arrangements. Those employers who can not live up to this simple principle need to find a different business model than one premised on unpaid labor. It strikes me as even worse when this scam is pulled by otherwise progressive organizations. Shame on them.

Posted by: dmh | May 31, 2006 7:33:59 PM

I've held two internships. Both were extremely worthwhile. The first was a journalism fellowship in science writing; the 10-week summer job was sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and was intended to put science students where they could improve mass media science coverage. The pay wasn't great, but I got to work at a major regional newspaper. The second was a California legislative fellowship at the State Capitol in Sacramento. The stipend was small but adequate for a recent college grad (the only requirement of the program was a bachelor's degree in some field; mine was math but most of the others had poli sci degrees). It was a great learning experience and led to my first "real" job.

I have my doubts about unpaid internships, unless they carry compensation in some other form, such as colleges units in some educational program.

By the way, Markos of DailyKos was in Sacramento yesterday on his book-signing tour, and he says the GOP system of paid internships is a training ground that progressives just can't match. The creepy baby right-wingers are even put up in Republican-sponsored dorms (red-state communes?) where they can live for free while serving apprenticeships in D.C. offices. We need stuff like that.

Posted by: Zeno | May 31, 2006 8:00:03 PM


If college students really want to be paid, they won't take unpaid internships!!

Why do some people find it necessary to dictate the specifics of every single voluntary economic interaction between people? The reductio ad absurdum of this kind of thinking can be found in Britain (IIRC and I'm not sure I do), where you are forbidden to make repairs to your own house, but must call a professional.

Lighten up!

Posted by: Mastiff | May 31, 2006 11:35:57 PM

Studying engineering, I never, ever took a summer "internship" that was unpaid.

Budding lawyers get internships as paralegals while they're in college, which is paid work. When they're in law school, the summer jobs at law firms are typically well-paid.

My take on internships is that if they're unpaid, you're likely in the wrong line of work. Particularly when it comes to liberal organizations, if they can't care enough to pay their interns, those interns should know better than to take those positions with organizations that clearly don't care about them.

Posted by: Constantine | Jun 1, 2006 5:04:14 AM

"Haven't internships always been around? They were just called apprenticeships before."

An apprenticeship is a long term arrangement -- years, not weeks -- in which the master agrees to train the apprentice in the craft at least to journeyman level. Hardly a summer job.
-- ml
Dum Luk's

Posted by: Martin Langeland | Jun 1, 2006 11:33:41 AM

"Studying engineering, I never, ever took a summer "internship" that was unpaid."

What Constantine said! I went to an engineering co-op school that required more than a year of internship experience to graduate (and it wasn't limited to just the engineers). The positions had to be paid, or no credit. Somehow, thousands of students at a time were able to find companies willing to pay for their services as interns. So, I disagree with Ezra on this one -- you can "make" internships paid positions, or at least expect them to be.

Posted by: A. Alzabo | Jun 1, 2006 2:52:41 PM

I think we can all agree that unpaid and underpaid internships are, on the whole, regressive. Working for free is a luxury.

It is becoming increasingly common for students to take these unpaid stints, not only in public policy and alternative media, but also for more "glamorous" jobs in profitable companies. For example, internships in the entertainment industry and the established media are frequently unpaid or very poorly paid.

This isn't just a problem for students and their families. It's a larger social issue. We complain about the echo chamber and the bubble effect in the mainstream media. Unpaid and underpaid internships are increasingly important part of people's career paths in these fields. This is bad for the media and for society at large because it discourages anyone who can't afford to give away their time.

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein | Jun 1, 2006 3:16:47 PM

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