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April 5, 2010 6:55 PM   Subscribe

"With job openings scarce for young people, the number of unpaid internships has climbed in recent years, leading federal and state regulators to worry that more employers are illegally using such internships for free labor." (via)
posted by The Whelk (120 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
I don't see a problem with this. The original post needs some editorializing so that I know where to direct my outrage.
posted by prunes at 7:02 PM on April 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, what could be wrong with "employers are illegally"?
posted by DU at 7:03 PM on April 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was very happy the New York Times covered this issue - in the fields that I check out (arts/media) these kind of unpaid internships are proliferating on both the the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) job boards and of course Craigslist.

After the article I ran, I wrote the Craigslist legal department and NYFA requesting that at minimum they post - in the body of every unpaid internship ad they run - the six federal criteria the jobs must meet in order to be legal:
1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction;
2. The training is for the benefit of the trainees;
3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation;
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded;
5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period; and
6. The employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

I think that some of the growth is just due to both employers and prospective internees being ignorant of their rights and responsibilities, and that this terrible trend might slow a bit if people were better informed.

I encourage others to write similar letters to job boards that post a lot of these ads. If they get enough, perhaps at least the job boards will be more careful in respect to this issue.
posted by bonsai forest at 7:06 PM on April 5, 2010 [29 favorites]


My internship supervisor straight-up told me that I had saved the company thousands of dollars by doing graphic design work that would have otherwise been outsourced to a freelance designer, an admission which would seem to make my internship illegal according to the article. Meanwhile, even living rent-free with a boyfriend, I had to work as a parking meter attendant to feed myself...

But it is literally impossible to get a job in advertising with no experience. So I did it anyways. I'm not even sure if I'm angry about it, because it's so status quo... but then, that's how they're able to get away with it...
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:07 PM on April 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


Take on debt, attend college, work for no pay. One way or another, America is determined to have her slaves.
posted by Lutoslawski at 7:07 PM on April 5, 2010 [44 favorites]


I worked at a dotcom for a number of years under a boss who would not only use interns as full-time employess, but would tell paid employees to "work harder, I could get an intern to do that shit for free".

I wonder how they'll crack down on this activity but I think it says something that I didn't even know there was such a thing as a paid internship*


*I never went to college, so I don't know a thing about how it works
posted by revmitcz at 7:07 PM on April 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


There just aren't enough Glocks to go around.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 7:09 PM on April 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


But it is literally impossible to get a job in advertising with no experience. So I did it anyways. I'm not even sure if I'm angry about it, because it's so status quo... but then, that's how they're able to get away with it...

It's the same in almost every field. It isn't right, but there's a weird double pressure -- employers like the free labor, while students and people switching fields are clamoring to work for free because they know they need the experience.
posted by Forktine at 7:12 PM on April 5, 2010


It does vary widely by field, though. While I'm sure it happens occasionally in programming, it doesn't seem very common. Certainly the big companies all pay interns (Google, Microsoft) -- for them it's mostly a recruiting tool. I'm sure there have been small dotcom/startups that try to abuse this though.
posted by wildcrdj at 7:14 PM on April 5, 2010


Unpaid internships violate the fair labor standards act.

This is really nothing new in tons of industries.

4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded;

This of course being the sticking point.
posted by kenko at 7:16 PM on April 5, 2010


4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded;

So it's only legal if the trainees are incompetent? Really? I hope they aren't paying whoever came up with that one. Because they clearly don't have to.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 7:18 PM on April 5, 2010 [5 favorites]



From the NYT article (ellipsised):
“Some of my friends can’t take these internships and spend a summer without making any money because they have to help pay for their own tuition or help their families with finances,” she said. “That makes them less competitive candidates for jobs after graduation.” ... “Employers increasingly want experience for entry-level jobs, and many students see the only way to get that is through unpaid internships.”
To me this is cynicism of the highest order. They're outright saying they don't want work experience, they want compliance.

Actual work experience is devalued if it's actually paid and forms part of an economy of spending and earning, and unproductive volunteerism is encouraged? This isn't even about employers getting work done on the cheap, this is about a larger ideological demand that workers be subservient. And not just to the usual 20th century workplace routines—starting times, fixed lunch breaks, uniform, meetings—but to actual emotional dependence and gratitude.
would tell paid employees to "work harder, I could get an intern to do that shit for free"
I've always wondered why there were so many workplace shootings in the US, but reading more about workplace culture over there I'm wondering less.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:23 PM on April 5, 2010 [14 favorites]


I've always been baffled by the unpaid interns- shouldn't they just be illegal, period? My experience is in SW, where interns are paid reasonably well as things go. Why should or would it be different in any other field?

Anything more than someone watching over your shoulder in a 3-month "Take your child to work" type of shadowing is clearly a job, and should be paid. I know someone who will be *paying* this summer to do a legal internship as part of getting her JD- but I can't imagine how that's legal, even though you'd assume lawyers would be especially careful about that.
posted by hincandenza at 7:25 PM on April 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


In Brazil you can only be an "intern" when you're still enrolled in a school. The moment you graduate you must be either hired or kicked (there might be some grace period). "Trainee" programs are a separate thing - recruitment/fast-tracking to bring college students to management positions in large companies or consulting firms (McKinsey, Bain and the sort), but these are mostly (fairly well) paid full-time positions with a funny job title.
posted by qvantamon at 7:28 PM on April 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


So many political organizations, so many unpaid "field organizers".......
posted by halcyon_daze at 7:28 PM on April 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Everyone knows hipsters are a less evolved species. That's why they are fortunate to be used as slaves. Besides, it's the status quo. There's really not much anyone can do about it.
posted by nervousfritz at 7:32 PM on April 5, 2010


I did an unpaid internship for four months after school, and worked a second job on weekends so that I could pay the rent. It was hard work, but four months were some of the best experience I ever got, and they hired me after, and made up for the lack of pay. The other guy with me, he didn't get hired but he did alright quickly enough.

I'd propose that unpaid internships should be replaced with minimum wage internships, not exceeding 6 months, and that the income be tax deductible. I'd also suggest that companies who offer internships be forced to hire a certain percentage of them, but I know that would be rife for exploitation and abuse.
posted by furtive at 7:34 PM on April 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


If an unpaid internship isn't counting as college credit that one would have to pay for, it should be illegal. There's no other way that companies are going to be willing to hire people with no experience and so the cycle will continue. Companies are completely willing to abuse every loophole possible - it should be illegal for them to accept free labor.
posted by stoneweaver at 7:37 PM on April 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


It's kind of a terrible issue, and I don't think unpaid internships are the worst of it. The WSJ actually ran a piece on PAYING FOR internships back in January of 2009: http://blogs.wsj.com/juggle/2009/01/28/should-you-pay-for-your-kids-job-internship/.

Just as with the unpaid internships, the issue seems to be "experience." The pervasive belief is that more undergraduate working experience will translate into a better job after graduation.

My personal belief is that a Pay Per Internship has to look bad. Unpaid internships can be valuable, which is why they are allowed. But if some of the unpaid internships are illegal, what about these pay per internships? Or is the "experience" the trade that's being made here?
posted by alexbiz at 7:41 PM on April 5, 2010


Newspapers, for example, used to offer paid internships but rarely do. I have yet to come across an intern whose main job was anything but producing hard work, usually with virtually no training, not in the sense any of us understand it. Major corporations have been getting worse and worse about this. And yes, it does skew the workforce, so that those with parents who can afford to support their kids for the summer get internships. the rest don't.

The job boards, like Craigslist but there are others, are also guilty of running illegal ads that discriminate on the basis of age. I occasionally write to job posters (anonymously, of course) when I see them. What I don't understand is how big institutions, including universities, continue to be allowed to ask questions about race, and of course, age (by demanding you list what year you graduated from high school.) I've seen probably a dozen job openings that say that listing ethnic information is voluntary but then insist that you fill it out by either refusing to allow you to go on to the next page or by making so much of a fuss of demanding it that you feel obligated to do so.

It was my understanding that companies couldn't ask any of this information at the first step. But they often are.
posted by etaoin at 7:42 PM on April 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


So it's only legal if the trainees are incompetent? Really? I hope they aren't paying whoever came up with that one.

Have you never been a trainee? You've never had to learn how to do something? Sometimes taking the time to instruct even a competent person—get this—takes time and is therefore not directly conducive to the trainor's ends. Sometimes one even, in being trained, makes a mistake!

That's not evidence of incompetence, it's evidence that one is still being trained. You know. Because one is an intern. Not an employee.
posted by kenko at 7:50 PM on April 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


Incidentally, to the idea that one must have an uncle with a golf buddy in order to secure prestigious unpaid work, the only possible response is the world-weary, humourless laughter of kleptocratic elites in real tinpot dictatorships.

You know your system of patronage is fucked when even nepotism doesn't pay.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:51 PM on April 5, 2010 [8 favorites]


It's the same in almost every field.

Actually, I could venture that unpaid internships are probably far more common in 'creative' fields, in glamour industries, like say: design, advertising, broadcasting.

Places where young people are a lot more interested in working than at other jobs. It has been like this for while.
posted by ovvl at 7:54 PM on April 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Why isn't every college student trying to become a software engineer? I was paid very well for my internships, even the one after sophomore year when (looking back) I really knew very little about what the heck I was doing, and have never had a hard time finding a job. I do creative, challenging, rewarding work with smart people every day. The company I work for is hiring droves of new employees at the moment. It is unfathomable to me that this isn't the most sought-after job in the universe. Are we not marketing our profession well or something? Even if you don't particularly love programming, at least nobody expects you to spend months literally doing indentured servitude in order to even be perceived as entry level.

I guess not every software company is the paradise I've just described, but no matter how little you like your Dilbert-style cube existence, you've got to admit we usually pay our employees. A company that didn't pay interns? Probably wouldn't manage to hire any interns. Yet in other fields, the best and brightest are signing up to donate the intellectual property they create to a for-profit venture in exchange for the vague promise of a future job doing something somewhat like what they actually want to do. Good grief.
posted by little light-giver at 7:56 PM on April 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


You have people raking in nice fat bonuses for messing up world economies, and then you have people toiling for free because they don't make any demands. It's better to sit at home for free or start your own business without pay than to hold on to the desperate fantasy that people who get your best for nothing are going to turn around and then reward you with a job later on.

I think I'll start to demand to get free stuff from all the companies who use free labor because I am testing out their products and services before I get around to deciding whether they are good enough for me to actually pay for it...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 7:57 PM on April 5, 2010


My personal belief is that a Pay Per Internship has to look bad.
How would employers know if you paid for the internship?

Apparently, most employers will tell you that they prefer to hire an entry-level employee who has had an internship to one who has had paid work experience. I don't know if they think that internships are somehow more likely to have substance than paid jobs or if it's just straight-up class solidarity. But the whole racket really does give relatively-privileged kids a huge advantage.
posted by craichead at 7:58 PM on April 5, 2010


Like incandenza, in my software company we pay interns and we pay them very well. By that token, we expect them to work their asses off, learn, and bring new ideas. We don't derive a huge amount of direct benefit from them (my rule of thumb for a summer intern project is something that would take me no more than two weeks - that seems to usually translate to ten weeks for an undergrad). However they're great for messing about with side projects that I don't have time to do myself, and they usually do a pretty good job.

So to me it's worth paying someone about 1/3rd of my salary to do 1/5th of the work I could do for a few months, because it's a project that would otherwise never get done AND our whole workplace is revitalized for a bit by some young, eager, smart people. Plus we've invested for the future in people who might very well make great employees down the road.

In an office where interns are unpaid, I think you can be pretty sure there's a completely skewed and fucked-up notion of the value of a person's labor.
posted by xthlc at 7:58 PM on April 5, 2010


I heard this piece on NPR (Tom Ashbrook, OnPoint, WBUR) last summer. It's the follow-up on paid internships after the WSJ story.
posted by toodleydoodley at 7:59 PM on April 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was an unpaid intern, kenko. Had my employer derived no immediate advantage from my activities, I would have expected a bad report back to my advisor, and I would have been unable to use the employer as a reference. Sure there was a learning curve, but the point was that I did learn, and made myself useful, and got a good report, and a strong reference, which lead directly to my first paid job. Meanwhile, my employer got plenty of useful work from me. It was a win win.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:00 PM on April 5, 2010


So it's only legal if the trainees are incompetent?

This is the kindof rule that shouldn't have to be codified. It should be understood that someone who is essentially working for experience is a trainee, and at least initially, if we're talking about tasks that actually need training, chances are they'll need an investment of time and attention that may not be efficient for days, weeks, or months.

Ideally the intern is also doing something somewhat useful for the company in the meanwhile so they're not just a time sink and becomes a greater potential asset over time, and everybody wins. But then we get the assholes, always looking for an angle, a shortcut, the arbitrage players of human resources, and it's not enough to strike a balanced bargain. They have to wring the maximum amount of advantage they can get away with. So, how do you clearly codify a solution to that?
posted by weston at 8:02 PM on April 5, 2010


It's the same in almost every field.

No, it's really not. Sure, there are exceptions - I'm sure you can find plenty of counterexamples to the sentences I'm about to write. But:

Nearly all of my friends who've looked for internships in creative fields, journalism, politics, have taken for granted that their work will be totally unpaid, but it's the only way to get a foot in the door and get anywhere in their industry. This may apply to other fields that I don't have friends in. This did a wonderful job, I should note, of totally shutting out anyone who didn't have a family that could support them while they worked this unpaid 'job.'

Nearly all of my friends who've looked for internships in technical fields - programming and various types of engineering - have taken for granted that they'd be paid, and by student standards paid very well. (Not counting, of course, work that had to be unpaid because it was giving them credits toward graduation; many schools, my own included, not permitting the same internship to provide both money and credits.) This actually meant that while students from less well-off backgrounds may not have had as many connections to find those internships, they were often more driven to find that work, and in some cases got summer internships that paid enough to sustain their living expenses for a large portion of the year.

There are gaps in my anecdotal experience, of course - for example, my social circle in college was heavily concentrated in creative/liberal arts majors and engineering/CS majors, with few involved in, for example, the hard sciences. But I'm pretty sure there's a substantial difference in the employment culture of different fields, and my own tends to see internships more as a way to get cheap (not free) labor and, in the process, very thoroughly evaluate potential entry-level employees.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:09 PM on April 5, 2010


Basically, this has been going on forever in publishing, but in terms of the actual entry-level jobs. You must live in NYC to work in publishing, a very expensive town, but they will only pay you shit wages, and unless you can find 8 roomies to live with, you're fucked. Unsurprisingly, a large number of editors I knew were either married to spouses with more lucrative jobs or had Mums and Daddums to make up the difference. Lots and lots of talented people were shut out of the industry because they could not afford to move to/live in NYC for shit wages. And when my husband could no longer support me...I left it too. Even though it's work I enjoyed and loved.

The additional problem also with working for shit wages is that when you are given a raise or go full time, your real wages are lower than they would be...and that perpetuates throughout your time at the company. So the overall lifetime penalty can be severe. I don't think many people understand that this low-valuing of work in creative industries like publishing is part of the reason why even when you get to management, you aren't making much.

I applaud the focus on making it illegal to continue exploitation of the workforce with unpaid internships. It is bad in the way it perpetuates class inequality and it's bad in the effect it has on those doing the work.

Speaking of, I seem to remember in college that teaching students had to work as assistants for a semester, unpaid, to get their degrees. That was wrong as well.
posted by emjaybee at 8:16 PM on April 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's the same in almost every field.

Internships in banks (whose gears are kept well-oiled by an endless supply of interns) are almost always paid, and usually at decent rates. There's never any shortage of applicants for such jobs either.
posted by pravit at 8:19 PM on April 5, 2010


Unpaid internships also chip away at the last shreds of the illusion that the top tiers in certain careers are meritocracies inhabited by our best, brightest, and most creative. Far fewer working class kids can afford to spend 40 hours a week not earning ANYTHING (while assuming additional expenses like dry cleaning, an appropriate wardrobe, transit, etc.) in order to burnish their resumes with top internships in journalism, art, sexy international aid NPOs, etc. It reminds me of a girl I met who, at 18, had already participated in fancy study abroad programs in 3 exotic locations, picking up reasonable language skills in at least two countries. Admissions officers and, I imagine, prospective employers, exclaimed, "How interesting!" My friends and I laughed (imagining our own sensible, necessarily frugal parents) and shook out heads in amazement: "Who paid for all of that??"

Ironically, conservatives understand this better than anyone else (or at least, they're operating from a much larger funding base these days) that attracting true talent requires funding it: many of the most generously compensated internships or research opportunities I saw in the social sciences tended to be for right wing organizations. I wonder how many working class best and brightest regret not being either in the hard sciences....or a Randian.
posted by availablelight at 8:19 PM on April 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


I see it as another big FU from the Boomer generation. They got theirs, and soon they'll be lining up for Social Security checks that people born in the 70's and 80's will have to pay for.

And yeah, I'm over-simplifying a bit. But I'm not a spring chicken and I'm still bitter about the virtual slavery required by fields like publishing and much of the non-profit world in order to get a foot in the door. Why not just hang a sign on your front door saying "non upper and upper-middle class folks need not apply"? It's not just snobbery, it's downright racism when you think about it.
posted by bardic at 8:20 PM on April 5, 2010 [11 favorites]


I was an intern in search of a promised job several times. I think there has to be a maximum working week for unpaid interns and hours after that time paid at the minimum wage. I would like to say this should be 30 hours. It would force employers to make hard choices and force competition among interns, which is what we need in high-capacity, wide labor pool.

On the other hand, it should be incumbent on potential interns to know when experience and collegiality in an internship will not develop into a permanent position. Perhaps that is why we need a maximum internship length allowed under state or local law. Certainly, in the case of politics, it would force accountability by campaign directors and make it more likely that there would be a cycling of talent and end the current reality of high expectations and low returns for interns. It would also be nice if every non-profit stopped using the term 'volunteer' for people who work over 40 hours a month. Perhaps a transferable 'community service credit' in the form of an incentive, like Disney has done this year, would make a difference.

NB: I have had only one internship turn into a job.
posted by parmanparman at 8:20 PM on April 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Both of my unpaid internships were for the US government. So I'd have to say that it's not just the private sector that is having some problems with these 6 rules.
posted by msbutah at 8:34 PM on April 5, 2010


Me: It's the same in almost every field.

A bunch of people: No, it's really not.

Ok, ok. Let me rephrase. It's the same in an increasing number of fields. Not just creative/arts jobs, but also many things environmental-related, as well as a surprising number of governmental positions, as msbutah mentions. Not software and engineering, no, but give it time...
posted by Forktine at 8:42 PM on April 5, 2010


Take on debt, attend college, work for no pay. One way or another, America is determined to have her slaves.

Really? An unpaid internship is like slavery?
posted by Solon and Thanks at 8:49 PM on April 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


I once had a job where I supervised ~20 people. My boss was canned by the board and his replacement arrived with grand schemes to cut costs, mostly observing things working in practice and declaring they could not work in theory. After a couple of months, the new boss called me into a meeting one day and announced his latest scheme wherein we would be canning all of the hourly employees (i.e. the 20 or so people) and getting 20 interns to take their place.

I pointed out that even when we hired one or two new people to replace departing staff, quality control suffered for a couple of weeks while the newcomers learned the procedures. With everyone new, the place would crash through the guardrail and wind up a flaming heap at the bottom of the gulch. My boss, who lived at the corner of Dimness and Inexperience, said all would be well.

I pointed out the second obvious flaw in the plan -- "Morale in the place is so low that I suspect people are coming to work only for the air conditioning. If you can't motivate people at x dollars per hour, how will you inspire people at zero dollars per hour?" His position: "That will be your job, rb." My response: "Not for very long."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:49 PM on April 5, 2010 [14 favorites]


I do an unpaid internship. As bad as it is, it's better than doing nothing and it's a reason to get up in the morning.
posted by SouthCNorthNY at 8:55 PM on April 5, 2010


I was lucky enough to land a great journalism internship at a large Canadian crown corporation (*ahem*). The union there is very powerful, and my (unpaid) internship hours were limited to the minimum required to get school credit. I definitely contributed useful work during my stay, and have subbed there a few times since.

I'm immensely grateful for that opportunity, especially since internships in this field are now very rare over here. From what I'm told, the unions often block internships because they fear that paid workers will be laid off in favour of unpaid students. Fair enough, I can see some companies doing that, but where do they expect that the next generation of workers will gain meaningful training? The universities?
posted by OLechat at 9:01 PM on April 5, 2010


I agree that the unpaid internship is one of a host of ways of preserving class privileges. But precisely because unpaid internships are generally about class and excluding the working class from some field, they're generally in relatively-high status fields, because that's the only place where people will work for free. Many of these fields, like the academy or publishing, don't even pay particularly well. (This raises the question: why do people spend a hundred thousand dollars to go to college and become philosophers or poets?)

The principle problem for youth in most other countries is unemployment. Given what a young person can -do- for a company, the costs associated with hiring her are often too high to justify the expense. So many young people aren't choosing between unpaid internships and paid work, they're choosing between unpaid work and unpaid loafing.

Eliminating unpaid internships would force some companies to turn to a smaller proportion of low-wage laborers, and many would-be interns will find themselves without a way to access the sectors and industries containing their "dream jobs." In some cases, these folks will now turn to more-reasonably-paid work in other sectors, taking those jobs from the very working class folks who were originally excluded from the high-status occupations. (I think this is basically the plot to The Devil Wears Prada.)

Conclusion: unpaid internships are an acceptable way to deal with wage-stickiness and class-privilege during a recession.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:03 PM on April 5, 2010


Why not just hang a sign on your front door saying "non upper and upper-middle class folks need not apply"? It's not just snobbery, it's downright racism when you think about it.

Huh? These companies aren't charities. The reason there are unpaid interns is because demand for these positions far exceeds supply. No company is going to pay for what it can get for free, and that has nothing to do with racism, it has to do with wanting to save money.

If you banned unpaid internships, companies wouldn't hire interns, and they wouldn't get trained. That wouldn't help anyone who wanted to get into the industry. Or perhaps that would be good, since maybe society should discourage entrants into oversupplied, frequently winner-take-all industries...
posted by shivohum at 9:09 PM on April 5, 2010


From what I'm told, the unions often block internships because they fear that paid workers will be laid off in favour of unpaid students. Fair enough, I can see some companies doing that, but where do they expect that the next generation of workers will gain meaningful training? The universities?
Back in the old days, there were these things called entry level jobs. You did exactly the things an intern now does, deriving the same benefits, but your company paid you a living wage for it, because you were working. Now, this idea seems so quaint it's shocking.
posted by craichead at 9:14 PM on April 5, 2010 [33 favorites]


one of a host of ways of preserving class privileges
I agree, but not in the way you mean, anotherpanacea. It's one thing for a company to select amongst job candidates for inherited wealth markers AKA class, that's just run-of-the-mill discrimination. Bad, but it goes on regardless of the economic climate—discriminatory managers are going to do their prejudice thing come boom or recession. Bigots stay bigots.

To me the really pernicious thing about unpaid internships is the mentality of work and labour that it must create in people who've got to submit to it: the attitude that to get a position of privilege and status, one must give away time, energy, self-respect, and any hope of collective bargaining. Sure if you turn up for free and wipe the door handles or photocopy and file, you might get hired and get the nice title on your business card, but in the end, you're always someone who was grateful of the opportunity to be exploited. Whatever their original backgrounds, these are a self-selecting class of people who choose a lack of economic power as a career choice.

It's not slavery, it's something worse, and far subtler: it's scab training.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:25 PM on April 5, 2010 [14 favorites]


My first job out of film school was an unpaid internship with a distributor. I didn't get much training, but I got to talk down-on-their-luck exhibitors into holding onto pictures that were doomed to lose them money, got to do a lot of press-clipping, got to put promotional packages in bags and try to hand them out to random passerby, and got to occasionally run random packages around, which I learned from my press-clipping were more than likely related to mob-kickbacks, though I never knew for sure. I worked five days a week, and never got paid, and with not even the whiff of the idea of a paid job at the end of it. When I finally left, the office went down to the bar downstairs for an hour or so for awkward conversation, but my drinks were paid for. So two or three beers for my work.

I also worked a hell of a lot of shoots unpaid, but on those jobs almost nobody was getting paid. There was the one where a "friend" of mine - acting as the producer - brought me on to be his production manager, and then on the first day informed me that he would be in Mexico for almost the entirety of the shoot, but that I could handle everything. He showed up again on the last day. I was paid nothing, and he, contractually, got a great deal of money considering the budget. For me to do his work while he took a vacation. At least the finished product in the end won the Audience Choice award at Tribeca, and the director/financier gave me a co-producer credit because he thought it was all bullshit as well.

Working on a J.D., your first summer internship will almost always be unpaid. I'm at a top-tier law school, and went down to New Orleans for a summer to work for Loyola's Katrina recovery clinic. I don't regret it for a moment. My roommate in DC was also down there, and the woman leading the clinic even set us up getting free accomodations at a beautiful house in mid-town in exchange for simply taking care of the inhabitant's dog while she was away for the summer. I'm absolutely fine with that. That's how internships should work.

the second summer of Law School, you're ideally supposed to work a paid internship for a firm or government agency. That's not really a guarantee anymore though, even coming from the top-tier, so I did public interest again. Again, unpaid. I'm okay with that. I didn't get nearly as much valuable experience as I did the previous summer, but I was working on much-needed policy for the education of the children of Migrant workers, so it was still nice. And the boss bought us lunch at a nice place a few times, so it was at least better than the distributor.

I've spent the last eight months in a clinic working for the DC Public Defender Services. I'm definitely not getting paid, but I'm at least getting school credit. One might say that I'm actually paying for this "internship," which also basically promises that one will NOT get a job with PDS coming out of it, but again, it's okay. I get to actually practice in court, get to actually help people, and get to actually work with clients. The majority of law students don't get that chance. I still don't have a job waiting for me when I get out, but the legal market crashed with everything else when I started school again, and that's pretty commonplace around here. I don't even know what it's like for people at less "prestigious" schools.

I also don't know what the point of all of this was, except to say that I've done a shitload of unpaid work in my time. Some of it was exploitative, and some of it very rewarding in just doing it. Some of the places couldn't have paid me even if they wanted to, but those places tended to make sure that the experience was more valuable.

I've never had an internship turn into a job, however. Once, I was called into a recording studio to do one day of extremely tedious work, noticed a mistake that no one else had caught, and was called back the next day to be hired as a full-time office-manager-type, but that's the closest I've come.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:26 PM on April 5, 2010


craichead: If you banned unpaid internships, companies wouldn't hire interns, and they wouldn't get trained.

Wouldn't they have to? I mean, if they couldn't get people to do the work for free, they'd have to hire someone to do it. Interns would be the cheapest option, really - they can do the work by definition, and one can assume they'd be willing to work for cheap if they were willing to work for free.

Really, though, I think that if your field has unpaid internships, you should take it as a sign that your field is badly overstaffed. Unless you love it and are exceptionally talented, you should probably consider alternatives.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:26 PM on April 5, 2010


Back in the old days, there were these things called entry level jobs. You did exactly the things an intern now does, deriving the same benefits, but your company paid you a living wage for it, because you were working. Now, this idea seems so quaint it's shocking.

Seconded! The entry level job has unfortunately disappeared, but not because of the internship alone. I really think more and more that the high specification of college graduates forced the issue of entry level jobs and gave freedom to employers to willy nilly more profits out of an organized professional class with limited potential opportunities.

The problem of specification at the college level is not new, but it is also a problem of college students not taking the opportunity of gaining actual working experience and instead taking extra classes beyond the scope of their major - while I will not say it's a bad thing to do for some people. I have a bachelor's degree in publishing (yeah, I know it's like I'm from the 50's or something) and the reality of my major and how I work is that I needed to have as much experience in the working player-coach side as possible. Suffice to say, I never did an internship in college. Did it help me? Not really. I still had to do an internship in lieu of finding a paying job in media in New York after college.
posted by parmanparman at 9:29 PM on April 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ideally the intern is also doing something somewhat useful for the company in the meanwhile so they're not just a time sink and becomes a greater potential asset over time, and everybody wins.

All these moving personal anecdotes are interesting and illuminating and all, but if the unpaid internships you've described are illegal under current law, then they are illegal, whether they seem like a win-win to you, or not.

That's kind of an important issue.

The law as it reads now certainly seems intended to prevent unpaid interns being used as a substitute for paid labor. And yet, that's often precisely what these positions are. If that's illegal, it doesn't necessarily mean your cool boss was a bad person, or that the experience you got in the industry shouldn't count for something, but it might mean the company he/she represented broke the law, and it really doesn't matter a whole lot if you feel exploited or not. It's not about you: It's about the already qualified worker who might have gotten paid to do the job you did for free.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:29 PM on April 5, 2010 [8 favorites]


This discussion depresses me even more. I'm heavily involved in the creative industries in Australia, where there are plenty of unpaid internships (I'd be surprised to see an internship that paid *anything*, even travel/accommodation) and plenty of opportunities that either don't pay you or require you to pay some amount. A lot of them come from organisations that rely on government funding and don't have a lot to throw around; they'd love to pay you if they could. There have been orgs that have shut down completely after one funding source has left.

I have been jobhunting since the end of 2008, after ending uni with a semester of 3 simultaneous work experience subjects. All good, gave me credit, but not money. The longest contract I've had was for 8 weeks, and that's an anomaly. I also have a business providing creative services, and the income's small & irregular. (That said, the smaller gigs are usually much MUCH better at paying me than the bigger established names, even if all they can afford is a nominal amount. The bigwigs demand volunteers.)

Due to my Bridging Visa (while I apply for permanent residency) I am not eligible for almost any financial help whatsoever - loans, credit cards, scholarships, grants, Centrelink, job assistance, new business assistance. Basically if the Government gives the money I don't get it, despite being counted as an Australian resident for tax purposes. So my main options for money, asides from waiting every few weeks for the odd gig or two, are:

(a) Get a job
(b) Live off boyfriend
(c) Live off parents

(a) is not getting me anywhere. The same bridging visa which necessitates me getting a job is hindering me from one - I can't do anything that's permanent/ongoing as that's limited to PRs and citizens, and many places don't understand that yes, I can work anytime any number of hours anywhere on a bridging visa (especially since it doesn't come with an end date). My freelance work, which is irregular and open-ended, is listed on my resume - and I get HR people confused that I'm "working five jobs". Temp agencies won't hire me. People just say "oh, we were overwhelmed by applications and it was a numbers game". And that's for the regular menial stuff - admin, stripclub, bar, waitressing, babysitting, you know all the typical Day Jobs people advise you get while you work on your creative career. It frustrates and annoys me when people tell me "well then just get a regular job!" because I'm trying but it's not working!

As for the creative side? Guess what's popular - yup, unpaid internships. Even if you have years of experience behind you (as I do) they still insist on having you work for free before they can commit you to anything (Maybe). And while I love volunteering, I'm not sure I am able to work full-time for no pay, not even a stipend. (The ones that do pay a stipend are super-competitive.) I can't afford to go regional or move interstate - and besides, the same shit will happen there anyway, but now I'm even more of an unknown as I have less local contacts. There's plenty of stuff happening irregularly (festivals et al) but where am I going to get the money for airfare?

So while I still apply fruitlessly for jobs, fending off people who claim that I'm just not "thinking positive enough" or that I'm "underselling people by working free", and while I apply to as many opportunities as possible, even ones that look great but which I'm technically not eligible for due to residency, and while I build my profile and hope that some benevolent benefactor will grant me a zillion dollars. Right now the benefactors are my boyfriend, who has a regular job in IT and ends up paying the lion's share of stuff, and my dad, who should be retired but is working doubly hard so that his Malaysian ringgit can go to support his unorthodox "I still don't understand you" daughter. Call me a trust-fund kid if you like; I don't really have many other choices.

The creative industries aren't valued by bureaucrats or the rest of society, so they lose out on earning money. To get anything done they need people to work for free. But the only people who can afford to work for free have enough privilege to cover the costs. The ones with the passion and drive are thwarted by their need & inability to cover living expenses, mainly because people don't value them enough to give them a job. It goes on and on and on.
posted by divabat at 9:30 PM on April 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Whatever their original backgrounds, these are a self-selecting class of people who choose a lack of economic power as a career choice.

You could say the same thing of everyone who goes into the non-profit world: "Tutor children in math and science?!? For FREE? How dare you: that's SOMEBODY'S JOB you're stealing!" Except of course that nobody's doing the job, which is why kids need tutoring, and their parents need pro bono legal counsel, and too many people still need free medical clinics, etc.

I'd much prefer to see real volunteerism and community service replace corporate obeisance both as entry-level work and as a marker of high status, just as I'd like to see real charitable donations to the actual needy replace tithing, but first you've got to start making finer distinctions than those you're using here.

To be honest, I'm starting to see the next generation of veterans in my classes, and I'm feeling pretty certain that in five years young people without military service are going to be feeling a bit left out. Talk about experience....
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:36 PM on April 5, 2010


Really, though, I think that if your field has unpaid internships, you should take it as a sign that your field is badly overstaffed. Unless you love it and are exceptionally talented, you should probably consider alternatives.

That's a good point. I talk people out of going into creative majors for that reason. The greater problem at the academic level is that unless a group of students can find a reason to make a professor passionate about a subject, you will end up sitting in class rather than getting trained in a clinical environment. Only when I was forcing professors to take the initiative to lead by example in college did I really learn new ways to work. Most professors, especially at the state college where I went, were just in it for the perks of being a professor: a little tail, a little money, lots of free lunches in exchange for working a few hours a week and sitting on some committees. I think only at the research level is there a difference but research was not done at the taught-major college I attended.

If students or professors are reading this thread and you find yourself motivated to start a clinic for working in a creative major, please post it to Projects and send a big press release to Chronicle of Higher Education, too.
posted by parmanparman at 9:38 PM on April 5, 2010


"Tutor children in math and science?!? For FREE? How dare you: that's SOMEBODY'S JOB you're stealing!" Except of course that nobody's doing the job, which is why kids need tutoring, and their parents need pro bono legal counsel, and too many people still need free medical clinics, etc.
Well, actually often somebody is doing the job. In my country we have decently funded public education, Legal Aid, a pharmaceutical benefits scheme and public-funded medicare. You shouldn't universalise very specific policy situations.

The proper response to unpaid internships isn't defeatism, it's solidarity.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:55 PM on April 5, 2010 [9 favorites]


We pay our interns $10/hr. It's a good gig.

"Anne-Marie, do all the interns get Glocks?"

"No, they all share one"

posted by mrgrimm at 10:00 PM on April 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


See, Fiasco, you live in a civilized nation.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:01 PM on April 5, 2010


/obligatory
posted by mrgrimm at 10:02 PM on April 5, 2010


In my country we have decently funded public education, Legal Aid, a pharmaceutical benefits scheme and public-funded medicare.

That's nice for you. Should we not allow doctors to volunteer their time to work in countries less fortunate, in the hopes that someday we'll all live in a social democracy?

You're really going to call the doctor fixing vaginal fistulas a scab?

I guess "Get a functioning welfare state, brown people!" is the leftist version of "Get a job, bum!"
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:14 PM on April 5, 2010


We're not talking about Doctors Without Borders. We're talking about the requirement, in the United States, to work for no pay and no expectation of specific benefit in order to work in certain industries. Nobody is talking about the third world.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:28 PM on April 5, 2010 [9 favorites]


And honestly I have no idea where you got what you're getting out of Fiasco's post and suspect that you're just looking for something to get pissed about.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:29 PM on April 5, 2010


You're really going to call the doctor fixing vaginal fistulas a scab?

This is not a metaphor, anotherpanacea. Doctors and physicians do very important work, but they also organise collectively very effectively to make sure that they get paid appropriately to their skills and seniority. The medical associations in the UK and USA are the last of the closed shops.

And area health services and hospital administrations do not require new residents to work for months for nothing. Hard, long hours, yes, but they get paid.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 10:29 PM on April 5, 2010


There's a difference between for-profit companies getting free labor to earn money and non-profit charitable organizations getting free labor to help people.
posted by Zalzidrax at 10:51 PM on April 5, 2010 [12 favorites]


While I totally agree that the unpaid interns often get screwed, I worry this could simply lead to the end of these type of internships rather than lead to interns getting paid. I had a professor say that externships were necessary because at the beginning of your education/career you have so little offer employers you essentially are paying them for experience and training.

I've had a lot of unpaid internships and they definitely helped me get the work experience and put such cache on my resume that I would not of otherwise had. I know I could not have gotten a similar low paid job at the same companies with as little experience and education as I had at the time. Especially in college. I had one particularly prestigious internship in college that opened doors for me in the most bizarre places. I did very little other than answer the phone (and soaked up some knowledge by watching others), but employers in totally unrelated fields after college were impressed for no other reason than it was prestigious and must have meant something about me if I had worked there. All my internships were stepping stones to other internships and then eventually to jobs. It was an investment that paid off for me.

I think one of the biggest problem with unpaid internships is it favors people who can afford not to work over those who can't. I was able to get a lot of valuable experience and still pay my rent because my parents were kind enough to support me until I could get a paying job. Not everyone has the luxury of working 20-40 hours a week for free for 6 months straight just so they can put a line on their resume and make a couple of connections. I actually think I lost money on most of my internships between the commuting and work clothes I had to buy.
posted by whoaali at 10:54 PM on April 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Did one of these at a public radio station in a big American city.

There were three or four of us interns at any one time, and we WERE the news department. We did 90% of the daily coverage in the field and wrote all the copy that was read on-air for the hourly news breaks.

We had two paid supervisors who almost never went out into the field, and there were five paid reporters who mostly worked on longer-form stories.

Without exaggeration, the interns were doing the bulk of the daily work at that place. Fifty, sixty hour weeks. No pay.

One guy had been there a whole year, and was finally getting ready to leave. He didn't get a job offer to stay. There wasn't even the vague hint that he would get an offer to stay. After his year of servitude, a way of thanking him was to let him read one of the thirty-second stories on air at the break.

My catty supervisor (ALL public radio people want to leave and do documentary film or television, by the way) used to tell me "it was a privilege to be there", and that I should be paying them to do the internship. It was a bullshit gig. I quit after two months.
posted by meadowlark lime at 11:21 PM on April 5, 2010


I think I'll start to demand to get free stuff from all the companies who use free labor because I am testing out their products and services before I get around to deciding whether they are good enough for me to actually pay for it...

Well, this is the model musicians, games studios, and filmmakers are being told to adopt, so I hope no-one objecting to this extending to their preferred fields of employment think it's OK for other people.

There's a difference between for-profit companies getting free labor to earn money and non-profit charitable organizations getting free labor to help people.

Quite. anotherpanacea's obtuse refusal to grasp this difference seems odd, to say the least.
posted by rodgerd at 12:08 AM on April 6, 2010


I guess "Get a functioning welfare state, brown people!" is the leftist version of "Get a job, bum!"

I think Fiasco could be more accurately interpreted as saying "Get a functioning welfare state, Americans!"
posted by jacalata at 12:11 AM on April 6, 2010


not anti-US-ian
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 12:13 AM on April 6, 2010


Accounting internships actually pay very well.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:45 AM on April 6, 2010


Barclays paid SGD 4,500 / month for interns who barely graduated from a Bachelors programme. CS/Merril/Bain regularly pay SGD 10,000/ month for pre-MBA internships, as long as the MBA is from a top-brand.

In short, not getting paid for an internship is crap.
posted by the cydonian at 1:51 AM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


One of the other insidious things about the unpaid internship is that if your only compensation for weeks or months of work is the desperate hope for a good recommendation or someone to otherwise say nice things about you, you can bet you're going to be answering "how high?" no matter what the question is (or how unfair the demand). You really have no choice. If you mess up your interpersonal relationship with your bosses in any way, it's like retroactively ripping up every single one of your "paychecks".
posted by threeants at 2:27 AM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


The creative industries aren't valued by bureaucrats or the rest of society, so they lose out on earning money

And here I thought they WERE valued based on laws like the DMCA and treaty talks like the ACTA.
posted by rough ashlar at 3:16 AM on April 6, 2010


it should be illegal for them to accept free labor

Why? If young people are too stupid to see their efforts paid, why is it the employer's job to make sure they're negotiating to their fullest potential?

Don't work for free. This is Capitalism 101.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:09 AM on April 6, 2010


I think the real problem is that some people can work for free. And these people are making it hard for the people that can't. But this intrinsic unfairness is at the heart of capitalism. People with means use those means to get more for themselves, not by talent or by effort, but by sheer force of monetary momentum.

See also: landlords, bankers, politicians.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:14 AM on April 6, 2010 [8 favorites]


In a dozen years in the tech industry, I've never heard of an unpaid intern. I seem to remember software engineer interns usually making in the range of $25 - $30 an hour a few years ago but it's probably higher now.
posted by octothorpe at 4:26 AM on April 6, 2010


And here I thought they WERE valued based on laws like the DMCA and treaty talks like the ACTA.

That's more to protect the business-people behind the creative industries (the "industry" end) - the actual creatives don't get much, especially if they're independent.

I can't find it now, but some time ago on one of those personal development/lifestyle design sites someone came up with a presentation that promised the #1 Secret of Getting an Awesome Job with Your Dream Company(tm). The secret? Offer to work at your dream company for a week for free. Do this often. Since it's risk-free to the company they're more likely to hire you once they see you in action.

I seemed to be the only person at the time who didn't fall over my feet praising the presentation-maker and spreading the word on their Brilliant Career Wisdom. Evidently none of the big career bloggers considered how much of a privilege it is to be able to work for free without it impacting on your lifestyle in some way.

It's the same thing as why Seth Godin's Alternative MBA from last year bothered me, and why I was frustrated at the KaosPilots' insistence on you travelling to their 2-day workshop in Europe to be considered for admissions on their own dime, whether you got accepted or not, and even why I find conferences like TED et al somewhat hypocritical. They make themselves to be this international, globally-aware, We Will Change The World thing, and yet fail to realise that the only people who can afford to be part of it are the ones with enough privilege to be able to afford it, and not have to worry about the worst problems of the world - whereas the big changemakers, the people who would make the best use of such programs and actually make an impact, can't actually afford to be part of the program in the first place. So then the same old views get reinforced in the same old echo chamber - and people wonder why change isn't happening.
posted by divabat at 4:45 AM on April 6, 2010 [5 favorites]


Hmm. I get about one solicitation a month from someone who is basically dying for me to take them on as an unpaid assistant. They've got the degree. They'll do anything. Please, please. I've been turning them down because, in my line of work I just don't have the time to train someone to do all the things I need someone to do right now. And yet, when I was in my other career, no one ever remotely considered working for free. In fact, though entry level positions were hard won, they were also well paid. And I think I've sussed out what the difference is.

What I was doing then is a technical pursuit where a motivated person with the right school training can be pretty productive. Given some basic instructions, a task can be accomplished correctly. Those would be the PAID intern/entry level positions.

What I am doing now is a creative pursuit with a moderate amount of technical knowledge backing it up. Knowing how to mount a lens, how to focus, how to set up a light stand, all those technical things one can pick up in school ... don't really mean dick in the real world. Being able to point a camera in the right direction means you don't look like a bumbling idiot, but if you don't have the photographer's chops: how to see, how to direct, how to light, how to work with talent -- you're basically a nothing.

These skilled and creative trades have featured an unpaid (or room/boad only) system of on-the-job training for thousands of years. So I guess I'm saying that unpaid internships are more thoughtfully termed "modern apprenticeships."

And I think they're a good thing, as long as everyone has their eyes open.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:08 AM on April 6, 2010


These skilled and creative trades have featured an unpaid (or room/boad only) system of on-the-job training for thousands of years. So I guess I'm saying that unpaid internships are more thoughtfully termed "modern apprenticeships."

And I think they're a good thing, as long as everyone has their eyes open.


Room and board? If I could find an internship that paid room and board I'd be thrilled. There's a big difference between room and board, and nothing.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:39 AM on April 6, 2010


So I guess I'm saying that unpaid internships are more thoughtfully termed "modern apprenticeships."

Yeah, and better than traditional apprenticeships too, since those typically involved the apprentice or apprentice's family paying for the training and the apprentice throwing in labor for free too.
posted by shivohum at 6:40 AM on April 6, 2010


Well, ok, as long as you realize that the apprenticeship system was based on a moral economy in which the master had responsibilities to his apprentice and not just the other way around. An apprentice could assume that if he completed his apprenticeship he would be initiated into the guild and someday become a master himself. The system began to break down when that expectation stopped being realistic. Do you offer similar guarantees to your interns? If not, then the whole "apprenticeship" thing seems to me to be self-serving justifications for labor exploitation.
posted by craichead at 6:45 AM on April 6, 2010 [6 favorites]


It's not just snobbery, it's downright racism when you think about it.

I hate to be the one to break this to you, but here in the US, there are poor people of all races.
posted by deadmessenger at 7:00 AM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


I said: "I'd much prefer to see real volunteerism and community service replace corporate obeisance both as entry-level work and as a marker of high status...."

You said: "The proper response to unpaid internships isn't defeatism, it's solidarity."

Frankly, I feel little solidarity rich kids who want to be paid to work in fashion, advertising, or banking internships. But my point was simply that we have to stop valuing these jobs as high status, and shift high status "volunteerism" efforts and "apprenticeships" to work that actually needs doing. There's an obtuse refusal to read me charitably in some of the responses.

For instance, PG responded: "We're talking about the requirement, in the United States, to work for no pay and no expectation of specific benefit in order to work in certain industries."

That's what we're talking about, but I was suggesting an alternative. I suggested a different, better occupation for all the rich kids who want higher status work. All we need to do is shift what we value and honor from advertising or banking to helping those in need. For instance, take a look at this sidebarred Askme about becoming a home decorating photographer. In a world where 25,000 children die every day from easily treated poverty-related diseases, that sort of career path shouldn't be paid, it should be outlawed.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:05 AM on April 6, 2010


Any one want to guess at the percentage of college students/grads that can afford to work as unpaid interns? My completely, off-the-cuff wild-ass guess would be less than 10%...hell, it may be less than 5%.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:10 AM on April 6, 2010


My semi-educated sense, Secret Life of Gravy, is that a fair number of college students intern and work for money at the same time, which makes it feasible for more students than you'd think. What I'm seeing is that there's a massive, invisible inequality between students whose parents live in big cities and those who live in small town or rural areas. If you can live for free in the D.C. or Chicago metropolitan area, you can probably pull off a summer internship even if you need to earn money over the summer. If your parents live in rural Indiana and would have to pay rent in Chicago or D.C., not so much.
posted by craichead at 7:16 AM on April 6, 2010


I had a professor say that externships were necessary because at the beginning of your education/career you have so little offer employers you essentially are paying them for experience and training.

This. Especially in my industry (motor racing) the skills requirements and risk of hiring someone without experience directly and convincingly precludes ever taking anyone one new into the industry. The vast majority of teams have limited budgets and the cost of an extra employee is massive (just travel, food and accommodation to races and tests averages around $6000 per person per year) without even considering the possibility of massive, lasting, failure from a mistake from a student/intern/n00b/clueless greenhorn; one mistake on a seemingly minor component can cost a result or even a race. At the wrong time, this sort of mistake can lose you a driver and so lose your entire year's budget at this level of racing - it can literally fold the team with a few minutes of inattention, especially if mistakes are repeated. In addition, we can't afford to double staff a car to catch these mistakes and so that we can make up for the inevitable lack of work in a very high pressure and time constrained industry that someone without even the environmental awareness (the right attitude and work ethic, never mind technical knowledge) would produce. Training someone slows down productivity enormously, as everything has to be double checked.

We've burned our way through 3 or 4 interns in a few weeks or months, at times, with people that fancied the idea of racing but don't want to commit to the industry as they didn't realise how hard it was. How can they get any appreciation for the lifestyle and work of a very different industry if they can't try it? How can they try it if the industry can't afford to take a chance on someone who may walk in a month? Even the lucky few that have had the chance to join in at weekends with family or friends who race have blanched at the massive difference between club racing (owner driver doing it for fun) and professional race team. Even volunteering at relatively similar styles of the industry doesn't give you enough of a feel for what working in it is like.

if we had to pay these people, we would never, ever, risk taking one on to train them. Neither would anyone else in professional racing. I can think of - just using myself and my current team as an example - 4 very successful racing personnel (3 engineers and one mechanic) who would never have got into the industry at all without starting out as an unpaid assistant. This is from a team that has existed for 5 years and has an employee count of between 4 and 5. In addition, I can think of maybe 10-20% of the people I have worked with over the years that I know for sure worked for free for their first season. It's probably higher, but those are the ones that I know got in the door by this method. The doors of opportunity would soon slam shut for new blood if this avenue was closed off by legislation.

The people being so negative about the concept of 'slave labour' in the thread here seem to be only considering the large, corporate, model and any small company such as ours is crippled by the assumptions that these sort of people include into company legislation. Yes, large companies will take advantage of free labour, but this isn't at all any justification for removing the possibility to have people volunteer for real positions. This is an essential (often only) avenue for people to break into small or niche industries and also extremely valuable for elements such as my sport as it allows a relatively achievable method to take a risk on new blood and potentially find people that would be an asset to the team and the industry as a whole.
posted by Brockles at 7:28 AM on April 6, 2010


If I could get an apprentice who would really stick with me for five to ten years, learning everything I did while promising to move to some other town when she finished her masterwork, or stay on as a fully paid assistant/junior, I would seriously consider offering room and board. But no one is going to do that. People just don't make commitments like that.

So this new version of apprenticeship, the unpaid intern, seems to be a pretty good modern solution to the problem of one having no experience in fields that require experience that can't be purchased in a school.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:38 AM on April 6, 2010


This is an essential (often only) avenue for people to break into small or niche industries and also extremely valuable for elements such as my sport as it allows a relatively achievable method to take a risk on new blood and potentially find people that would be an asset to the team and the industry as a whole.

I think what you're missing is that the opportunity for new people to break into your field was already lost when the barrier to entry became so high that it became impossible to pay people at an entry-level salary for entry-level work. You're lucky enough to be in an industry that's desirable enough that you can find unpaid interns. What if no one was willing to work for you for free? Would your whole industry wither away and die? If that's really the case, maybe it could stand some re-examining, because you seem to have predicated an awful lot on the infinite availability of free labor.
posted by Copronymus at 8:25 AM on April 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Interesting anecdote: I once went to a job fair at a local drug company. It was supposed to be a call center position. When I went to fill out an application the program kicked me out and I was escorted out of the building, because they were looking for someone with a "year or more" of call center experience. Yeesh.

So, the idea of an "Entry Level" position is pretty much lost to me.
posted by hellojed at 8:59 AM on April 6, 2010


So this new version of apprenticeship, the unpaid intern, seems to be a pretty good modern solution to the problem of one having no experience in fields that require experience that can't be purchased in a school.
It's certainly good for employers who get free labor, and it's arguably good for rich kids who get access to professions that are closed to most of their less-rich peers, although that assumes that internships actually lead to paid positions. It's very bad for the young people who are excluded, and I would argue that it's bad for society. I really don't think it's good for the media and entertainment industries to be dominated by people from upper-middle-class, big-city backgrounds. So I guess I think the question is whether you're looking at this from the perspective of employers and rich people or from the perspective of non-rich people and society.
posted by craichead at 9:09 AM on April 6, 2010 [6 favorites]


Hey, I was an unpaid intern on the Obama Campaign. I sometimes did as much or nearly-as-much work as the field organizers, and they got paid and free computers. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Sometimes it's more about what you get to do.
posted by Partario at 9:13 AM on April 6, 2010


Both of my unpaid internships were for the US government. So I'd have to say that it's not just the private sector that is having some problems with these 6 rules.

Ditto, I had an unpaid internship with the State Department in college.

Well, ok, as long as you realize that the apprenticeship system was based on a moral economy in which the master had responsibilities to his apprentice and not just the other way around. An apprentice could assume that if he completed his apprenticeship he would be initiated into the guild and someday become a master himself. The system began to break down when that expectation stopped being realistic. Do you offer similar guarantees to your interns?

In my current field, which is not something that's easy to learn other than by doing, I do offer these kinds of guarantees to my interns. When they work for me, they meet all the people they're going to need to know to get and keep work in the field, they're getting real life experience, they're learning things they'd never learn in school AND then they've got me, who's got a bit of a name in said field, to write their recommendation letters and anything else they need from now on. It helps them get work in this field, if that is what they actually want to do. And if I know they're good (which I do, after they've worked for me for the 168 hours or whatever the heck the program I use sets as the minimum), I stretch my neck out as far as it'll go to help them succeed.

Put restrictions on this and they'll still be asking to work for me every summer, I guarantee it. I'd have done my State Department internship no matter what -- in fact, I took a quarter off from school to work full time and save money so I could swing it, and in one of the most expensive cities in the world, too (Munich).
posted by bitter-girl.com at 9:15 AM on April 6, 2010



I'm cool with unpaid internships. Until they start replacing airline pilots. Then I'm complaining.
posted by notreally at 9:16 AM on April 6, 2010


Brockles, what you're talking about fits perfectly with a legal unpaid internship. Your team isn't deriving any direct benefit, they're not displacing paid employees, and you're providing real job training - not having them fetch coffee and wipe door knobs. The article is talking about something quite different, which really is a bane and eliminates entry level paid work.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:33 AM on April 6, 2010


I really don't think it's good for the media and entertainment industries to be dominated by people from upper-middle-class, big-city backgrounds.

Nothing is stopping the non-upper-class, small-town folks from starting their own entertainment empires. Shit, these days the barriers of entry are the lowest in history. You can have a podium to a world-wide audience for free.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:03 AM on April 6, 2010


I had a professor say that externships were necessary because at the beginning of your education/career you have so little offer employers you essentially are paying them for experience and training.

See, the problem is that that's what school is: where you pay for experience and training in your field.

College becomes more and more irrelevant as anything but a credential.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:26 AM on April 6, 2010


I had a professor say that externships were necessary because at the beginning of your education/career you have so little offer employers you essentially are paying them for experience and training.

See, the problem is that that's what school is: where you pay for experience and training in your field.

College becomes more and more irrelevant as anything but a credential.


I agree. I think it gets really bad when you are getting credit for your unpaid internship. At my school you couldn't even get credit unless it was unpaid, adding insult to injury. So you were paying the school to work for someone else for free. And that job was almost certainly not arranged by the school, as in minimal if any placement services. But you needed to get the credits because the only way you could balance a full time schedule and a 20-30 hour a week job was to have one class that was essentially a freebie. The only sort of quality added by the school was that your employer had to sign something saying your job wouldn't be primarily doing menial work, however I don't know how they could possibly have enforced this and I'm fairly sure this stipulation was in place for accreditation reasons and not for the students.

And of course the school didn't discount the tuition any of us paid for those credits.
posted by whoaali at 11:42 AM on April 6, 2010


"So it's only legal if the trainees are incompetent? Really? I hope they aren't paying whoever came up with that one. Because they clearly don't have to."

It's a harsh way of putting it but yes. If they were competent then they should be employees not interns.
posted by Mitheral at 12:01 PM on April 6, 2010


In a world where 25,000 children die every day from easily treated poverty-related diseases, that sort of career path shouldn't be paid, it should be outlawed.

WHAT?! So anything that isn't directly save-the-children is evil and should be banned? My family's Bangladeshi, they're from one of the poorest countries in the world. Yet in Bangladesh culture and language is a BIG DEAL. The country became independent over the language. If anyone had your logic you wouldn't have an independent Bangladesh, let alone one that was able to embrace and express its culture. Just because it doesn't have a direct benefit doesn't mean creative pathways can't also offer solace and support to the world.

Nothing is stopping the non-upper-class, small-town folks from starting their own entertainment empires. Shit, these days the barriers of entry are the lowest in history. You can have a podium to a world-wide audience for free.

There's no guaranteed attention or respect, which is gold with the entertainment industries. There are many people doing their own thing, but only those connected to the right names get any sort of leverage.
posted by divabat at 12:35 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


I work in the intersection of two of these fields that are notorious for hiring unpaid interns: nonprofits and politics (I work for a political nonprofit). In fact, right now I have a part-time unpaid intern, and, while I strive to give him good, interesting, educational work to do, it's just not realistic in any job for 100% of the day to be incredibly rewarding. And if we adhered to rule #4, we would never be able to have interns, period.

A few things about entry-level jobs in politics:

1. This whole conversation about internships is why my first advice to young'ns who want to go into politics is: "spend a summer working as a paid canvasser." You can get this job in virtually any city in the US, and it pays. It doesn't pay well, and the work is very hard, both physically and emotionally (and, at first, mentally). However, you will learn the building blocks of the skills you need to be successful in politics: how to ask for time and money, how to talk about complex issues in a simple, engaging way, and how to be persistent in the face of rejection. If you do well, you'll be promoted pretty quickly to a trainer or manager position, and will learn great skills that most kids in fancy office internships won't.

It's also a really great way to make connections for future jobs in politics, and it's really impressive on a resume. I never had an unpaid internship because I had to make money during the summers, but I got offered two jobs right out of undergrad, strictly on the merit of my canvassing management experience.

2. There are actually a lot of programs in the progressive political world designed to give recent grads entry-level experience, and they pay. I don't have the time or patience to list all of them here, but off the top of my head, both SEIU and AFL-CIO have organizer training programs; the PIRGs have a million entry-level jobs where you can get trained as an organizer, a lobbyist, or any other number of things; the Democratic Campaign committees have campaign fellowships, as does EMILY's List; the Sierra Club has an apprenticeship program for recent grads.

Most of these will want some sort of experience but it doesn't have to be a formal, full-time internship: as someone who occasionally reviews entry level resumes, I know I'd be more impressed with someone who led their campus greens group in a campus-wide clean energy campaign, or was a volunteer precinct captain for the Obama campaign than with someone who spent a summer giving tours of the Capitol or answering phones in an office. Which leads to...

3. The field of politics only recently became professionalized, and still (rightly, I'd say) is run mostly by volunteers. For instance, on any campaign below the Congressional level (say, state legislator, mayor of a medium-sized city, etc.), the show will be run by volunteers and maybe one or two paid staffers. The same is true for advocacy campaigns - for every paid organizer or lobbyists, there are dozens of volunteers providing the real juice of a campaign.

It's easy to glorify the days when politics was essentially run completely by volunteers, but that also meant that only those with lots of time (the independently wealthy, rich housewives) could get involved in politics. The situation we have now, where politics is actually a real career, has opened it up to lots of people who otherwise wouldn't be able to be involved.

But still, volunteers are still what makes political/advocacy campaigns go round, and if you're 23 and want to get into politics but have never volunteered on a political campaign or for a good cause, I'm going to wonder why I should hire you instead of one of the people who is so passionate about social and political change that they'll give up their free time to work for it.

All that said, the political world is notorious for using, abusing and spitting out young idealists. And that's wrong, wrong wrong. But given the sheer number of paid entry-level opportunities, I think the far bigger problem is the lack of nurturing and career development for people once they hit the 2-4 year mark in their career. But that's a whole 'nother issue.
posted by lunasol at 4:58 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think it is very irresponsible to rely on free work from interns if they can make the interns PAY for being allowed to work.

And always remember rule 10 from the Ferengi rules of acquisition: Greed is eternal.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 7:40 PM on April 6, 2010


So anything that isn't directly save-the-children is evil and should be banned?

Umm, I was being hyperbolic about somebody devoting their life to shooting pictures of lamps.

Yet in Bangladesh culture and language is a BIG DEAL. The country became independent over the language.

You should really study your own history. Bangladesh had much bigger problems with Pakistan than language. Language and culture were the means by which they mobilized opposition to real exploitation and domination. That's the difference between a justifiable home-rule movement and simple xenophobic nationalistic separatism, like the American South fighting to preserve its "unique cultural traditions."
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:53 AM on April 7, 2010


There's no guaranteed attention or respect

Sorry, the adulation and respect part you have to actually earn by putting out something other people will find value in.

There are many people doing their own thing, but only those connected to the right names get any sort of leverage.

Christ, the excuses keep getting thinner and thinner. You've got a world-wide audience at your fingertips. Tools that a child could use to present your message to the masses. Via text. Via video. Via audio. Tools for those tools that make interconnecting with others trivial.

And you're still complaining? I'd suggest GYO-something-or-other, but then you'd still have to do stuff to fill it up.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:28 AM on April 7, 2010


anotherpanacea: Oh for goodness sake. Yes, language wasn't the ONLY thing that propelled the war, but it was pivotal, and the breaking point. My parents lived through the damn war, they've told me stories, just because I haven't explained it all in one sentence doesn't mean I don't know anything.

Civil_Disobedient: Just putting up a blog doesn't mean people will flock to it. You still need to market it - and even with the Long Tail-ish niches there are still certain styles that dominate. You still need to do a hell of a lot of marketing. Tell me, why is it that a lot of Internet breakout stars seem to come from a very small number of countries, involved in very few genres? How come you hardly see any traditional music on, say, an indie blog? And just because people have an audience doesn't mean they get enough support to stay sustainable - last I checked, I can't use performance art to pay my rent. (well, I suppose I could *try*, but my real estate isn't going to accept it as valid.)
posted by divabat at 5:45 AM on April 7, 2010


Oh for goodness sake.

Indeed, I am similarly incredulous. Can you see how I might object to being associated with Pakistan's domination when I objected to paying people to specialize in fashion and advertising? I made a point about the relative value of different occupations, and you roped me into a discussion of communitarian identity formation and cultural preservation.

In truth, I do believe that this dispute about paid internships entails some matters of first principle and fundamental concern, but the fact that you accused me of solidarity with colonial oppression because I don't support rent-seeking status-mongers doesn't make me feel particularly charitable. Equating Madison Avenue internships with Bangladesh's fight for independence is a bit straw man, don't you think?

Unless you really believe that Vogue and Cosmo are the modern defenders of America's cultural tradition....
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:37 AM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is being discussed on NPR right now.
posted by The Whelk at 8:46 AM on April 7, 2010


anotherpanacea: Have you checked out the subcontinent's pop culture lately? A lot of what the Western world likes to dismiss as irrelevant - reality TV, pop magazines, movies - have been central to the cultural experience of South Asians. Just look at the proliferation of talent shows for singing and dance! Just because it's not "high-brow" enough doesn't mean it's not important.
posted by divabat at 4:11 PM on April 7, 2010


Just because it's not "high-brow" enough doesn't mean it's not important.

divabat, you're right: neither high-brow nor low-brow are as important as survival. First grub, then aesthetics.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:34 AM on April 9, 2010


anotherpanacea: Not everyone in Bangladesh are penniless fakirs, you know. We actually have *gasp* electricity! and *gasp* reality television!
posted by divabat at 7:40 AM on April 10, 2010


And *gasp* the second highest child malnutrition rates in the world!
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:43 PM on April 10, 2010


The US has tons of poverty issues too but no one's infantilising it as much as you're infantilising Bangladesh, anotherpanacea. Have you actually been to the country? Noticed the huge gap between city folk and country folk? Heard of Grameen Bank and entrepreneurial village women recently? You wouldn't be able to escape a shopping mall in Dhaka.
posted by divabat at 1:25 AM on April 11, 2010


I get that you're outraged about something, divabat, but I don't really understand why you're targeting me.

This is a thread about US employment law. I made a point about the relative value of high status gigs in the commercial arts and low status work that actually needs to be done. Since then, you've been hounding me about Bangladesh on the basis of a pretty weird tangent that you introduced.

You've also been pretty rude and accused me of a series of ethnocentric rhetorical sins, none of which I've committed. In doing so, you keep attacking *me*. What have I done to you? What does any of this have to do with paid internships? My position all along is that cultural production is so valuable that people are doing it for free... so why not let them?

On the substantive accusations: of course Bangladesh is a mature nation-state. I never said otherwise. It also has the second highest child malnutrition rates in the world, in large part because of the position of women in Bangladeshi society and the likelihood that women in particular will slip into poverty and be unable to escape.

Part of Bangladesh's maturity is that its government allows and exacerbates massive inequality, exploitation, neglect, and misogyny, while most of the efforts to combat that injustice are accomplished by private and often foreign-born organizations (like the Grameen Bank! Yunus got his PhD in Nashville, Tennessee.) Being mature doesn't preclude being cruel or indifferent to suffering, unfortunately. And yes, you're right in your tu quoque: the US and Australia are also unequal, exploitative, and misogynistic. But not at much: there's a reason your parents left, isn't there?

None of this is relevant to a discussion of US culture and employment law, so if you really want to continue this conversation, please explain why it needs to happen here, in this thread? If you have a beef with me, take it to MeMail or Metatalk. If you want to talk about Bangladesh's pop culture, start your own thread.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:02 AM on April 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can't speak for divabat, anotherpanacea, but I guess I did take your "how dare people want careers in advertising when there are starving children in the world!" point to be kind of embarrassingly trite. Plus it's irrelevant, because non-profits and NGOs are some of the worst offenders in the unpaid internship racket.
posted by craichead at 10:55 AM on April 11, 2010


If you'd read the article, you'd realize that the Labor Department's directive is specifically aimed at for-profit businesses, as non-profits cannot "derive immediate advantage" from an intern's work and interns do not "displace regular employees": there is always more work to be done than there are funds to do it. So whether or not non-profits offend in this regard, this directive isn't going to change that. I agree non-profits do misuse people, but like the Labor Department I think the issue is complicated enough to discuss under a different rubric than for-profit employment.

Just to be clear, my position isn't "how dare people want careers in advertising when there are starving children in the world!"

My position is: "if you can't get paid to work in advertising, that's because we've got enough advertisers: go do something more useful."

Feeding starving kids is just an idea.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:51 PM on April 11, 2010


My position is: "if you can't get paid to work in advertising, that's because we've got enough advertisers: go do something more useful."

Feeding starving kids is just an idea.


How are you supposed to do that, if you can't get a job (and hence earn money) in your chosen profession? Something more useful would still need to be something that earned them money so they can live. It's kind of a nonsensical viewpoint, and seems deliberately pious and fighty, to me because of it's unrealistic position. Unpaid internships are usually most used by people trying to get a job, not people with loads of disposable income that would allow them to volunteer their time to be benevolent.
posted by Brockles at 1:10 PM on April 11, 2010


How are you supposed to do that, if you can't get a job (and hence earn money) in your chosen profession?

Choose a different profession. There's still a lot of work that needs to be done, even during a recession: it's just not as high status as publishing or advertising or stock car racing.

Look, I work with the age-group that this article addresses: college students looking at the worst economy in three generations. A lot of my students have unrealistic expectations, and a lot of them think the world owes them a living at whatever job they choose. They come from tremendous privilege and they don't understand that lowering their expectations is not nearly as bad as what other people go through on a regular basis. Many of them will devote their lives to sectors of the economy that are glutted with eager competitors, while ignoring the kind of work that always needs doing.

It's like building more houses in Las Vegas: the supply exceeds demand, and the fact that nobody's buying is the only hint the economy will send to these kids, because their parents and their mentors frequently just tell them to "follow their dreams" regardless of how unlikely or unnecessary those dreams are. It's a waste of talent, intelligence, and energy, which aren't in infinite supply.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:43 PM on April 11, 2010


I guess I wonder if your perspective would be different, anotherpanacea, if you worked at a state school where most students weren't tremendously privileged by American standards. I don't feel like anyone is telling my students to just "follow their dreams." I find that idea, frankly, a little hilarious.
posted by craichead at 3:26 PM on April 11, 2010


Given that I've worked at more than one state school, I guess my answer is... no?

At the R1 state school where I went to graduate school, the average undergraduate had a greater sense of entitlement and far less talent than my current students.

At a very non-research state school where I briefly taught, the students were often older, and certainly less privileged. They didn't need to be told to 'follow their dreams': they were doing it right then, in the classroom. But then, the average student at that school had a plan that didn't involve getting her screenplay read by the right person.

(The top students at all the schools I've taught at have been about the same.)

But here's an idea: let's not make this about me. How does working where you work, craichead, affect your thinking about the management of the political economy? Has it given you any insight into the proper response to globalization, rising health care costs, the decline in real wages, and the disappearing middle class?
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:25 PM on April 11, 2010


Brockles said most of what I wanted to say, but I wanted to add that even poor old starving Bangladesh has a growing advertising & entertainment industry, and it's not always seen as some sort of privileged-person folly - for some it's a way out of poverty into self-sufficiency. Would you tell the advertising students in Dhaka to "find another job"? What if they get a scholarship to the US but find it hard to get an internship there, let alone a job (due to various reasons of residency and racism)?
posted by divabat at 5:33 PM on April 11, 2010


If the Bangladeshi advertising industry is asking new entrants to work for free because there are fifteen of them for every job opening, then yes I'd tell them to 'find another job' because that's not really a more realistic way out of poverty than becoming a famous actor. I assume that this isn't the case, and therefore advertising in Bangladesh is not one of the over-subscribed industries anotherpanacea is talking about. I think it's really tangential to bring up immigration issues and racism here.
posted by jacalata at 6:07 PM on April 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here's what my proposals look like in practice:
In this brief, we outline the limitations of the current college internship system and lay out a proposal that would enable low-income college students to pursue paid internships at either non-profit organizations or in government. We propose that the federal government initially appropriate $500 million in spending for the Student Opportunity Program to support about 100,000 low-income college students per year. This would be funded initially by capping contributions to section 529 savings plans (a recent recommendation of the Treasury Department to the White House’s Middle Class Task Force) and consolidating the currently disparate system of higher education tax expenditures. Going forward, we envision increasing support for the campus-based components of our proposal to provide expanded funding to more universities and colleges.
That's from Demos's recent publication, Paving the Way Through Paid Internships. Notice the emphasis on public serve and non-profits!
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:47 PM on April 11, 2010


doh! public service
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:47 PM on April 11, 2010


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