WORKPLACE SAVVY

The bigger picture on unpaid interns


Published: Sunday, July 7, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 5, 2013 at 4:51 p.m.

This is my paid vs. unpaid-intern journey, and how I went from having a lackadaisical attitude to wearing a "Pay Your Interns" button.

Before I researched this topic, I was like most people. I thought, yes, in general, businesses should pay interns when possible, but an unpaid internship is better than no internship because it boosts the student's chances of getting a job after graduation. So no big deal, right? Wrong.

In the '80s and '90s under an "informal bargain" in the workplace, it was understood that unpaid internships 1) usually lead to a job, 2) are how the inexperienced are introduced to the real world, and 3) involved mostly inconsequential work, customarily done by students.

But because of changing business practices over the last 20 years and the current economy, this bargain has slowly (probably unintentionally) morphed into a system of "institutionalized wage theft."

With the rise of the "serial intern," unpaid internships aren't just one semester. Interns stay on for two, three or more rounds hoping for a paid job.

Internships are no longer for inexperienced students. Businesses openly advertise for unpaid internships requiring several years of experience. Not surprisingly, these aren't always filled by students. These unpaid "interns" displace paid workers and put downward pressure on wages all around.

Which brings me to another serious unintended consequence: Not everyone can afford to intern for free.

If you're a working-class kid who can barely pay for college, you won't be able to accept an unpaid internship (unless it's for school credit). The result? Only well-off students whose parents can support them while they work for free will get the advantage of internships.

This creates yet another layer of disadvantage if you are poorer, regardless of whether you managed to get the same degree from the same school.

So yes, there are a lot of people out there — students, graduates and the unemployed — who are willing to work for free in order to improve their chances for a paid job. And employers (private and public) have certainly benefited from that fact.

But sooner or later, we as a society will pay the consequences. You see, this system has created what's referred to as a "precarious labor" workforce, made up of interns, temps, perm-temps, contractors, freelancers and such.

These folks are usually saddled with high student debt, and they don't even get unemployment later on. I do worry about their long-term well-being and how they will partake of the American dream.

This is how I concluded that, while unpaid internships seemed harmless enough, they're really part of a much larger problem in our economy: How do we stay competitive globally, and also compensate people fairly for their work?

Discuss among yourselves. And write me.

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