It’s been a while since my last post here on AMERICAblog and, if you’re wondering where I’ve been, my time was well-spent interning at a non-profit in Washington, D.C. for a cause I believe in.
I had engaging work to do, learned a ton and helped my organization make tangible progress towards furthering our cause. My summer was a raging success.
But my internship came with an ethical issue unrelated to the work I was doing: I worked for free for three months… in Washington, D.C… with significant financial help from my parents.
Unpaid internships have become a sexy institution for progressives to rail against recently, with outrage embodied in lawsuits, court rulings and even an organization, the Fair Pay Campaign, dedicated to ending the practice. And they have a point: If you are doing staff-level work, shouldn’t you be entitled to staff-level compensation? Moreover, if you’re serious about the need for a minimum wage, isn’t it incredibly hypocritical to take advantage of free labor?
Absolutely. However, outside of the private sector, there’s a better solution than the blanket ban that many advocate. Ending unpaid internships altogether comes with the nasty side-effect of, well, ending unpaid internships altogether. At a societal level, we want these opportunities to exist, both for our young workers and for the institutions that benefit from them that, in many cases, are doing tremendously good work.
Banning unpaid internships altogether throws the baby out with the bathwater; rather than mandating that governments, non-profits and NGOs pay their interns, we should set aside funding for need-based aid the way we currently do for student loans.
By definition, unpaid interns don’t need the money
Minimum wages are desirable because they help society create a floor of economic well-being. For most unpaid interns – myself included – that floor of economic well-being is provided by their parents; they don’t need minimum wages to support themselves.
I have little sympathy for people with means equal to or greater than my own, fully aware at the time that they were agreeing to work for free, who decide after the fact that they deserve back-pay that they do not need. And the courts, so far, agree with me: the few successful lawsuits concerning unpaid internships have been filed by plaintiffs who interned after they had left college and entered the workforce. They won their cases because they weren’t student-y enough to fit the Department of Labor’s definition of “intern.”
Lawsuits aside, there’s an even larger moral issue surrounding unpaid interns’ work: students who are seeking restitution in the form of back-pay could afford to work for free in the first place. And because they could afford to work for free, they created barriers to entry for scores of otherwise-qualified students and recent graduates who don’t have their parents to lean on for financial support as they enter the professional world.
Unpaid internships aren’t unfair to the interns; they’re unfair to the people who can’t afford to apply for them.
The problem isn’t that the opportunities are bad (they’re incredible), it’s that access to said opportunities is absurdly unequal.
Especially in Washington, a lot of unpaid interns aren’t worth minimum wage
Being a still-in-college D.C. intern, I inevitably came across, well, a lot of D.C. interns this summer. And every single congressional intern that I came across spent their summer bored as hell. And it wasn’t just because Congress isn’t passing any bills. It seemed that a lot of congressional offices have so many interns that there are too many to fill the traditional intern roles of phone-answerer, coffee-retriever and tour-giver. Because of this, they were also expert Buzzfeed-browsers, lunch-marathoners and networking extraordinaires.
To be sure, they did get to, on occasion, do interesting research on pending legislation – and answering phones, Xeroxing and giving tours for a couple of hours is far from nothing - but paying interns minimum wage means having interns who produce minimum-wage level work. Under present conditions, the average intern simply doesn’t have enough work to make that viable, and it would be unreasonable to expect governments and non-profits to pay their interns more than they’re worth.
But it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the government to invest in students who need financial help to realize their potential. After all, it already does that. While a given organization is only willing to lose money in the short term to train a worker, if it is planning on that worker sticking around, and producing value, in the long term, governments can reasonably assume that they’ll be interacting with any given student over the long haul in terms of tax revenue and externalities associated with that student’s success in life. Because of this, the government gains more by subsidizing the internship of a promising student than whichever organization they work for does.
Internships are the new college educations
To give a short run-down of each: Human Capital Theory argues that there is value in education; the skills you gain in college (writing, critical thinking, time management, etc.) make you more productive and therefore more valuable.
Signaling theory holds that a diploma’s value lies in the diploma itself; college graduates are valuable because they have demonstrated that they are the kinds of people who can meet deadlines, show up to work on time and have reasonably long attention spans. In either case, the data clearly show that a college education increases lifetime earnings significantly.
The share of Americans with college degrees has risen nearly six-fold since 1940 – from five percent to 28 percent. And opening doors for more people means that some of those doors get crowded. Across the country, the narrative being hammered into college students’ minds is that in order to stand out, simply having a four-year degree doesn’t cut it anymore. A college education alone is no longer a strong enough “signal” to send an employer, and the classes you take are no longer considered adequate preparation for a career. To set yourself apart from your peers you have to “use your summers well”, which is code for having to take prestigious internships that pay in networks instead of wages.
In the context of my summer, not only did I learn new skills that made me far more valuable as an employee than I would otherwise have been if I had stayed home and worked at a swimming pool, but I also demonstrated that I can work professionally in an office setting. In other words, in the context of both Human Capital and Signaling Theories, I made myself very employable.
But, going back to my first point – I did so at the expense of others. My ability to leverage my college years into gainful post-graduate employment has depended greatly on my family’s ability to subsidize my summers, effectively paying for me to intern. I essentially outbid my less-fortunate peers who couldn’t afford to forego earning a paycheck this summer.
If the summer internship is the new value-adding mechanism for young Americans, then maybe it’s time to expand access accordingly. Why not use the same means-tested policies already in place for college financial aid to make summer internships accessible to everyone who’s qualified?
Those who object to unpaid internships rightly seek to reduce inequality and expand opportunity, but banning the practice reduces both inequality and opportunity. If internships are increasingly viewed by employers as extensions of college, it’s time we treated them accordingly and expanded access to all who are qualified, not just those who can pay.