Will take college credit for food.
April 21, 2004 1:37 PM   Subscribe

A huge number of internships are illegal. So claims a labor lawyer in this USA Today story. Are unpaid internships a form of white collar exploitation we should crack down on? Just how much of the workforce is unpaid, or working on tiny stipends? And is it like this in other Western countries?
posted by inksyndicate (43 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
1) Yes.
2) A sizable chunk, particularly in fields like advertising and journalism.
3) Seems to be big in the States and UK. Don't know about Europe as a whole.

posted by ed at 2:07 PM on April 21, 2004

There's a worse effect than the ones discussed in the article: classism. Rich middle- to upper-class young adults often work as interns on their way to higher-paying jobs. They are supported by their parents while doing so, while poorer young adults are unable to do so or unwilling to make the greater sacrifices required of them for the same position.

At a business, this is disturbing. On Capitol Hill, it's even more so, since it effectively limits one of the major entryways into politics to the children of the wealthy.
posted by callmejay at 2:13 PM on April 21, 2004

When I worked for a major Boston-based mutual fund company, our business unit paid interns minimum wage and barred them from working more than thirty hours per week.

I thought this was pretty silly, since we had scores of people willing to put in sixty hours for no pay, but the firm was so fearful of litigation that spending a few bucks on interns was worth the peace of mind.
posted by Kwantsar at 2:16 PM on April 21, 2004

I think it's pretty unfair. My friend is interning at a school, and basically he is working a full-time job as a teacher without getting paid. If I had to get up at 6am every day I'd want a paycheck.
posted by tomorama at 2:19 PM on April 21, 2004

If I were really feeling liberal, I'd point out that the only young people who can afford to take these positions are upper-class to begin with. They don't have to spend the summer earning enough for fall tuition. They don't have to spend the summer helping make sure the family has both a home and food. And of course the young people who apply for these positions see them as a) a summer long working interview with a company they'd like to work for after graduation b) an opportunity to learn Real Life Job Skills c) a great way to fill out the rolodex with potential future references and contacts. Result? Rich kids finish college even farther ahead of their middle and lower class "peers."

But in the current cllimate, the IRS and Department of Labor have no interest on cracking down on internships and statutory employees. Yeah, according to the law, most contractors should really be considered employees.

On preview, and as Tomorama pointed out, we haven't even addressed the issue of unpaid internships that are required for a degree program or state license.
posted by ilsa at 2:22 PM on April 21, 2004

I wouldn't do an unpaid internship...but I'm beginning to think that I may be a Teamster at heart. ;) The unpaid intern system seems to be terribly unfair and unbalanced, and I for one refuse to take part in it on either side of the equation. Would I hire interns? Absolutely. But at a pay scale at or above minimum wage...because it seems to me that minimum wage is exactly that.
posted by dejah420 at 2:23 PM on April 21, 2004

Isn't the idea supposed to be that the person is learning how to do a job, so it's more like training for them than it is a job?

I mean, how much responsibility does an unpaid intern get, exactly?
posted by Jart at 2:34 PM on April 21, 2004

in advertising, unpaid is the norm, and the way in to good jobs, Though when the princess of Sweden landed her advertising summer internship, she made a more than decent wage [36k SKR]. She needs the money, apparently.
posted by dabitch at 2:49 PM on April 21, 2004

oh, i'd like to add the internships I'm talking about isn't a summerjob type of thing, but the way in to the 'real' jobs after you've completed your education.
posted by dabitch at 2:51 PM on April 21, 2004

Whatever the labor standards are that establish legal parameters for unpaid internships, you may be certain that Congress exempted itself from them.
posted by coelecanth at 2:53 PM on April 21, 2004

There's a worse effect than the ones discussed in the article: classism.

I agree.

Another problem I see is something like the reason for T.A. unions: There's no longer much guarantee of a job. What proportion of internships really lead to regular gigs? What kind of social contract is there when 4 out of your 5 unpaid laborers will just go on their way without a permanent position?

I'm looking at this from the journalism industry, of course, so maybe there's a more reliable apprenticeship system in other fields...?
posted by inksyndicate at 2:57 PM on April 21, 2004

maybe there's a more reliable apprenticeship system in other fields...?

The various construction trades typically have reasonable apprenticeship programs (well, at least the bricklayers and masons do, that I know of. I'm simply assuming that the ironworkers etc. do as well).

...but there's that whole "blue collar" thing again. Architecture, which has typically held itself far above the tradesmen, has a pathetic internship/apprenticeship program that's routinely abused by pretty much every famous architect. I've heard it argued (convincingly, to me) that this is due to the fact that Architecture still sees itself as a "gentleman's" profession, and is therefore not highly motivated to address issues of classism (because they like classism and wish to encourage it within their field).
posted by aramaic at 3:11 PM on April 21, 2004

It is the same thing in Architecture. I, luckily as part of my program, had co-op [a paid internship] that I had to find at different firms for 6 months at a time. So after 6 years of school, I had 2 years of on the job training - and I got paid for it. The more avant-garde firms didn't pay anything [or paid a "stipend" of 200/month] and only the rich kids could afford it. And these firms are meat markets with high turnover and low morale. What I don't understand, is, you pay your employees well, and they will work harder for you [in most cases]. You pay them nothing, will they really care? I have been in a few interviews and was asked if I would take an "internship" instead of a paid entry position, I flatly refused. I find it is highly unethical and immoral not to pay your employees a living wage - at least to be able to have a roof and some food. They are making money off of me, why can't I make some as well? Unfortunately, in architecture, there are many Asian and European students and post-grads who are bankrolled from afar, who gladly take those no-pay positions.
posted by plemeljr at 3:11 PM on April 21, 2004

Interesting architecture examples, guys.
posted by inksyndicate at 3:13 PM on April 21, 2004

One of the worst trends in media internships is limiting them to college students. So not only do you have to come up with enough money to scrpe by without a paying job, the money pretty much has to come from wealthy parents - no working at a paid job to save up.
posted by transona5 at 3:18 PM on April 21, 2004

Well, interns at the large design firm where I freelance at do as much or more work as a regular employee, including working on design projects for clients.
(they sometimes do more just because they're eager to impress and aren't as comfortable with their position like some lazier partners, or such)

But, they pay the interns decently, here.

You learn enough to do your job in school - internships are for getting the hang of it in a real work environment.

If you work - you should get paid. Period.

and even if you have 'less' responsibility - you still should be paid. 99% of the time - your comparatively small amount of responsibility is much greater than the average burger flipper's and THEY get paid.
posted by cinderful at 3:19 PM on April 21, 2004

...let me further add that the miserable state of the IDP (Intern Development Program) in the US, combined with the way ARE (big exam) is timed, form a large part of the reason why I'm not bothering to pursue architectural licensure. The minimal extra income & flexibility garnered by a license isn't worth the time, effort and money required to get it.

Lousy internship systems hurt their entire field, directly or indirectly. It's kind of like frat hazing -- the abused become the next generation of abusers.
posted by aramaic at 3:20 PM on April 21, 2004

my two cents -

I don't see why people believe they have the right to control the agreements and contracts between two people so long as they aren't violating any laws.

If some schmuck wants to work for free, yes that hurts you because your labor is now worth less, but they haven't done anything illegal. How does that give you the right to violate their freedom/liberty/rights?

This all sounds very much like "stop working so hard to get what you want. You are making the rest of us look bad."
posted by Tryptophan-5ht at 3:34 PM on April 21, 2004

I hear that millions of young Americans actually pay to go to work at "colleges" where they are forced to engage in various forms of mental labor ranging from rote memorization to research. What's worse, even though they're the ones paying, they can still be fired from their jobs if they fail to perform.
posted by kindall at 3:37 PM on April 21, 2004

Years back, right out of school I got offered a job in an actuarial firm. It was sort of an internship, as it paid 25% below market rates at the time. As I understood it, the job was to study for the actuarial exams, which would lead to a "high-paying" job when you passed. I turned it down, as I didn't feel like studying any more after I graduated.

I guess that various professions have their own apprenticeship/internship paths.
posted by Daddio at 3:43 PM on April 21, 2004

If the interns who would make my life easier are working construction jobs because their parents can't bankroll their unpaid summers doing my research, then I have a problem.

I was the person working an hourly job because I couldn't afford to do unpaid field work or unpaid internships. I had to save my money to help pay for tuition and books and my mother definitely didn't need the added stress of trying to support me through an unpaid summer while she too was saving for my education.

I did end up working an unpaid internship on a film in NYC, after saving up my money the summer after graduation. I stayed with the production designer and his wife for two months, for free, and they fed me and drove me around whenever possible. I got $100 a week stipend for working 18 hour days on set. And this is the way most people have to break in to the industry.

In my view, unpaid internships let the 'employers' get good work for free because the only people who would want to take something as crappy as that are the ones that really want to do the job. It ain't right, but I don't think it will change.
posted by sciurus at 3:47 PM on April 21, 2004

Tryptophan -- part of the point of the article (did you even bother to read the summary at the top of the page?) is that employers who engage in this practice are breaking the law. Second, as to your assertion that "your labor is now worth less," that also means that if your competitor engages in these practices (in violation of the law) he has an unfair competitive advantage. Why? Because a certain percentage of his workers do not have to be paid. Can you see that reduces his cost of doing business? Can you see that this allows him to sell his goods or services for lower prices than someone who actually follows the law?
posted by ilsa at 3:52 PM on April 21, 2004

I had a summer job at an architecture firm where I made just over min. wage, but I've never had an unpaid job in the field. It does depend on what kind of firm you're working for (large/cutting edge ones will abuse you, albeit for different reasons), and what the job market's like. For example, in a college town with an architectural school, there's a huge labor pool of cheap drafters so one would have trouble getting an entry-level position, even without pay.

My first job out of college, I was the only person working in the office other than my boss.

The minimal extra income & flexibility garnered by a license isn't worth the time, effort and money required to get it.

Well, I don't know about that. If I had a license, I could do projects on my own, for which I'd be making tons more money per hour than working for my firm. My firm charges $100/hr. for my time, of which I see about $20. Working out of my home on my own projects, I get the whole $100.
posted by LionIndex at 4:02 PM on April 21, 2004

ilsa - Having an ice cream cone in your back pocket is illegal in a particular state. I suppose I should have stated 'immoral, and unethical' as there are a plethora of laws that that shouldn't exist.

Im asking why its illegal in the first palce.

If the intern and the employer enter into the agreement consentually, who'se rights are being violated? I can see how this would damage third parties, but then working really hard damages third parties and hardly provides legal recourse.
posted by Tryptophan-5ht at 4:32 PM on April 21, 2004

Much of the design industry works like the architecture industry--famous designers seriously taking advantage of young kids trying to break into the business. And that's exactly what this is, taking advantage of those who have no recourse. Kareem Rashid can easily afford to pay his interns, and it's not financial hardship, or even greed that has anything to do with it. There are so many people willing to work for him for a year or more unpaid (after grad., not summers), that he doesn't have to pay them. But this is the type of person he, and many of the design rockstars are. And it was how they were treated as well, by those they apprenticed under. What you hear a lot is, you have to pay your dues. For no other reason than "because I had to, when I was coming up."

Well. Not to say there aren't other options. I did one summer internship with a rockstar for a small stipend--and only because he had already hired a full time paid intern. But I also had a better than minimum wage internship with one of the largest architecture firms in the world. That seemed to be the choice when I was starting, corporate/institutional work, where you were treated humanely as a matter of policy, or hotshit rockstar work, where you had to grovel.
posted by danny the boy at 4:37 PM on April 21, 2004

If some schmuck wants to work for free, yes that hurts you because your labor is now worth less, but they haven't done anything illegal.

Rightly or wrongly, this is exactly the same argument people frequently use to support offshoring, prison labor, indentured servitude and sweatshops.

...this doesn't mean I approve (or disapprove) of any of the above working arrangements, I'm just pointing it out.

If the intern and the employer enter into the agreement consensually, who'se rights are being violated?

This is the same argument used to support legalized prostitution. Which I also have no personal position on.
posted by aramaic at 4:40 PM on April 21, 2004

Oh and, the large firm told me I was NOT to bill hours to the clients, but to the company itself. In all the other small boutique firms I worked in as an intern, I completed entire projects for clients, by myself--which were then billed to the client. I saw none of that money, but the firm did.

That's the ethical line, that's why it's illegal.
posted by danny the boy at 4:43 PM on April 21, 2004

I apologize in advance for the upcoming rant, but do please bear with me. I hardly get to do this here or in any forum :)

Depending on the company, some rely on interns for free labor and Unpaid internships, to me, are permissible if the intern is getting school credit as if he/she was taking a class.

After college, I worked for a couple of months at a record company as an intern to snag my last couple of credits to get my diploma. They didn't pay any of their interns aside from giving them schwag or guest list access to a show. Some of them were just kids from the area, looking for something to do. My intern supervisor worked for free for upwards of six months before being offered an entry-level (mail clerk) job. Being fresh out of school, I couldn't afford to keep it up for much longer than it took to get my credits and I went back to the company I used to work for during my summers off and was offered a permanent position several months later.

To top it off, my internship supervisor fires off a nasty email to me saying that I was misrepresenting myself as an paid employee of theirs, blabbing internal addresses for people to send demos and proceeded to cut an paste an email from a guy who had emailed him looking for information. In the email that he attached, there was a website guestbook entry with my name on it, mentioning the company, saying I was an A&R guy, naming names, etc etc. I go to the website where this guestbook was kept to discover that, yes the person who left the message had the same first name as me and mentioned the label, had NONE of the contact info and other offending portions that were attached to the nastygram I got from my supervisor.

I guess that's one way to ensure that this intern doesn't get hired and bloat the payroll. I'm sure they still have sucker kids doing their dirty work with no payoff.
posted by dr_dank at 5:33 PM on April 21, 2004

Tryptophan-5ht -

These laws are to protect the common worker.
Just like minimum wage.

How about I reverse it:

Why shouldn't employers be required to pay their interns?
They're invariably making money off of them. (possibly REALLY good money if they bill an $0 out as $125)
Just because someone is inexperienced doesn't mean they don't have great skill or value to a company or work process.

Don't impress someone by working for free - impress them by working hard.
posted by cinderful at 5:36 PM on April 21, 2004

Try Advertising. First, you have to go to a 4 year school, and complete your degree. You take unpaid internships for a few summers to 'break in'. Then after that, you find out that everything they taught you in school had no application to the real world. Then you have to pony up $30k to go Portfolio School.

That's seven years of school, plus a few summers of not being paid. And your median salary if you're good enough to be hired? $25k-$35. And you'll be looking for another job in a year once the account is gone.

Part of the reason all the advertising you see is so bad is because we're all so bitter and stupid.
posted by Stan Chin at 6:34 PM on April 21, 2004

And you know what else? Some idiots are paying Wieden and Kennedy to work there.

It's probably legal. But it's got to be illegal to be that big of a goddamn sucker.
posted by Stan Chin at 6:39 PM on April 21, 2004

When I was in college, most internships in my field paid no more than $25 a week to cover gas money and required 20-25 hours of work with students essentially doing the work of a regular employee. With no family support, there was no way for me to be able to afford to live off $25 or to continue with my full time job, full credit load and another 20+ hours of work.
posted by drezdn at 9:22 PM on April 21, 2004

In broadcasting and broadcast journalism, I know of no paying internships. That's why I temped during college, and did internships close to home, and combined them with part-time jobs. And felt jealous of the kids who could spend a summer interning at the high-powered places in DC and NYC.
posted by Vidiot at 10:49 PM on April 21, 2004

Stan, you beat me too it, I wanted to link that w+k thing. The sad state of advertising and working for free after school leaves only those who can afford it in the game.
posted by dabitch at 3:14 AM on April 22, 2004

Internships have no pay, it's true, but some interns get interesting perks.
posted by jonmc at 5:58 AM on April 22, 2004

I'm always amazed at the crap that people will put up with to get into, and stay in, advertising.

The people in advertising I know have Ivy League degrees with latin on them, slaved 90-100 hour weeks for the better part of ten years to get to $80k or $90k salaries by 2001, and have spent the last three years, terrible times in advertising, with zero bonuses, zero raises (or even paycuts) and constant fear of layoffs, and even longer hours as they deal with constant pitches and account reviews. If advertising were curing cancer or saving the world, I could undertand it, but as it is, I can't even imagine it. And these are the successful people!

The funny thing, not one of these people did ad school, or had to interview after graduation. Getting paid crap to learn the biz is bad enough, actually paying is a whole 'nother thing.
posted by MattD at 7:57 AM on April 22, 2004

I work at a small independent publishing house, we have two to three interns at any one time. We don't pay them for their internship, if they are college students we do work with their school to make sure they get credit. If we ask them to work outside of the scope of their internships, say to work at a book sales table at an author reading, we do pay them, regular employees who work those same events do NOT get paid, which I like. If we ask them to work on a particularly dull project, such as a mailing that takes them several days to complete we pay them as well.

Most of our paid staff were once our interns, in this sense they apprentice themselves, and if they apply themselves they are rewarded with a job in a very narrow and competitive field. If they do not get a job, they have an experience in the real working world, which is never what you imagine it is in college.

Classism certainly exists, I work for low wages, my parents don't support me and often I struggle, but that is my choice. I am thankful everyday that I work for low wages at a job that I care about rather than working at low wages for a job that I hate or not having a job at all. Other people I work with come from money and do not have to struggle with their low wages as I do, I often resent this, but once again I have been blessed with a choice. I left a high paying job that I hated to work at a low paying job I love and while I realize that that is not an option open to everyone, it is open to me and just like many other aspects of being American I have to live with the fact that I have advantages that others don't. I still have to work hard and that is also fine with me.

In the end, some internships are worth doing, unpaid and others are clearly not. How refreshingly like life itself. Any laws created to regulate this practice should have room to let this distinction apply, I assume that they will not.
posted by Divine_Wino at 8:06 AM on April 22, 2004

But how much of this is illegal? I wonder. All free market idealism aside.
posted by inksyndicate at 8:26 AM on April 22, 2004

to get to $80k or $90k salaries by 2001

Sorry if I don't weep for these folks.
posted by Vidiot at 9:29 AM on April 22, 2004

in the legal profession, many (if not most) public interest internships are unpaid because the organizations cannot afford to pay the interns but sorely need the help. there are some foundations which give stipends to students who earn these internships (competition for them is stiff, indeed), but most often the interns do not get any pay at all and live on student loans. it's a bit like volunteering (though you do get some prestigious recommendations out of it) and a bit like the legal clinic experience (without the grade points).

i imagine this is true of a lot of "public service" professions.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:40 PM on April 22, 2004

Almost all journalism internships, especially ones at big-name magazines, are full-time and unpaid. And since it's vital to have an internship to get in the door, especially in magazine journalism, they can do this because they know there will be no shortage of applicants whether they pay well, pay minimum wage, or don't pay at all. I was very lucky to get an internship through the American Society of Magazine Editors program, which paid well. I could never have afforded to work in NYC if I was going unpaid, no matter how many clips I'd have gotten.
posted by SisterHavana at 5:52 PM on April 22, 2004

I'm surprised people aren't more entrepreneurial about this kind of thing. Advertising, for example, isn't rocket science. In fact, in recent years it seems that the less your work appears like a product of the "system" the more likely you'll be successful. If you've got talent and passion for what you do, well shit man, go do it on your own.

All these great firms that people are killing themselves to get into all had founders that, at some point, were tired of taking shit from their bosses, and knew they could do it better. While you're not going to land a Nike account working out of your Mom's basement, there's nothing stopping you from going down to your local club and pimping your services to smaller clients. Build up a solid portfolio, get to do the work you love, and oh yeah, get paid for it. Build up enough of a reputation, and you can charge more, start getting bigger clients, etc., etc.

Or better yet, find a couple of friends who are in the same boat and put together your own firm. S-Corps are easy as hell to form; the hardest part is going to be getting your name "out there", but like I said, there are plenty of small-time clients who don't have thousands of dollars (let alone millions) to spend on Yet Another Edgy Advert.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:32 PM on April 22, 2004

If some schmuck wants to work for free, yes that hurts you because your labor is now worth less, but they haven't done anything illegal. How does that give you the right to violate their freedom/liberty/rights?

What it comes down to is an equality of opportunity. Rich kids with connected parents can a) get the internship through one of daddy's friends and b) afford to pay rent / eat because their parents are willing to help out so they can take advantage of a great opportunity. For people from lower income households, there is simply no way to take advantage - they might really want to, and might be willing to live off very little, but there is still a minimum that is necessary for survival... what are they supposed to do, just find a street corner to live on, and become a breatharian?

Anyway, the comparison to going to college is pretty accurate. College was once purely for the rich. We've tried to change that. We have state-sponsored schools now; we have scholarships and loans and financial aid available. If a similar move were made for internships, it might be more fair. But on the other hand, as a society we're in far more debt than is probably healthy already, so taking further risks, betting on higher future payment by borrowing money now to afford an internship, might not be a great solution, even if someone were willing to fund it.
posted by mdn at 10:57 AM on April 24, 2004

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