Why pay someone when someone else will do the job for free? That must be the question that every employer is asking themselves these days. As I troll lists of employment opportunities online, I cross off the ones that require 2-4 years of experience (education excluded) in order to be considered. By the time I am finished with my crossing-out ritual, there is nothing left.
I happen to be one of the many young, educated people who do not fit the qualifications for entry level employment in Washington D.C. While I have a graduate degree and lots of internship experience under my belt- heck I even volunteered for AmeriCorps for a year- I don’t qualify as an entry level employee. Even if I did, there is a line out the door of people with more experience than me who are hungry to get the job. This the reality in the trenches of Washington D.C., or what I like to call Intern Land: the city where hustlers come to hustle, and then work for free.
But enough about me. The real problem here is that my situation is not an isolated case. Washington D.C. is permeated by an internship culture so heavily engrained in the city’s institutional structure that it is not only expected, it is required by the city’s universities that students pay money for credit hours to be earned by completing unpaid internships. This would be fine if it stopped there and the students that graduate from their illustrious institutions went on to find gainful employment. However, that is not the case. For those looking to work in the public sector, and in many cases the private sector, the intern process is far from over come graduation day.
According to Politico, some 20,000 interns descend on Washington D.C. to intern every summer. However, this number does not reflect the year-round intern carrousel that exists in the District. The city relies on interns for its productivity, and this has in turn effectively produced an underclass of competent, well-educated labor that remains uncompensated. Unpaid internships in Washington D.C. have become so prevalent that the lines between an unpaid internship and an entry-level position are blurred. Unpaid interns now fill the jobs that people used to get paid to do. The sad truth for all recent graduates is this: the entry level position no longer exists; or rather it exists, but somebody else is already doing it pro bono.
In fact, the unpaid internship is so entrenched in D.C that the federal government has exempted its agencies and Congress from the Fair Labor Standards Act which regulates how unpaid internships must be conducted. For everyone else, the laws in the United States regarding unpaid internships are clear, if poorly regulated, and are outlined in a six pronged test by the Department of Labor.
Interns must not do the work that the company would ordinarily pay an employee to do. The employer should not receive any immediate benefit from having the intern on staff, but instead should provide close supervision and training for the activities of the intern; the workplace should serve as an educational environment for the intern. In short, if an unpaid internship is functioning the way it ought to, it is the workplace that should suffer from the burden of providing a service: not the other way around.
But at any good Washingtonian knows, D.C. plays by it’s own set of rules, and those rules are fixed against individuals without the means to work for free indefinitely. While there are some who are fortunate enough to have the financial support (read: parents) to help them while they “pay their dues”, others are not so lucky, and so they are locked out of the system. With the average student loan debt topping $29,000 in 2013, the political economic system cannot fairly expect that students will graduate and work for free for the requisite 2 years before being allowed into the sanctified world of full-time employment. This is an especially pressing issue when one considers the importance placed on internships when seeking employment.
A 2012 study conducted by the The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s Marketplace found that employers place more importance on internship experience than on college GPA or major. It is this fact that explains what I like to call The Internship Paradox: in order to earn money you must work for free, but to work for free you must have money already.
Thus, the cycle of privilege perpetuates itself, allowing the already elite few to continue to rise while leaving the rest of the clamoring masses in the dust. Sure, you may have paid your way through college, taken on the burden of loans, and studied enough to get good grades while doing it: but when you believe you have finally found your way to the promised land of white-collar employment, you learn that a new hurdle has been erected that you simply cannot scale. Sorry guys- if you can’t work for free, you just can’t work at all.
The long term effects of the unpaid internship culture have yet to be seen. There is good reason to believe, however, that this is just another hindrance that the millennial generation faces on the path to adulthood. According to one Wall Street Journal article, a number of factors including the recession and an increase in internships has delayed the ability of millennials to make the transition to financial independence. Additionally, it is not even clear that unpaid internships are very effective at leading to employment whatsoever.
According to a study of 2013 graduates by the National Association of Colleges and Employers paid internships lead to employment 63.1 percent of the time with a median salary of $51,930 while unpaid internships lead to employment only 37 percent of the time with a median salary of $35,721. In fact, working as an unpaid intern may not even provide much of an edge over those who do not intern at all. Of those who do not intern 35.2 percent receive at least one job offer with a median salary of $37,087- more than unpaid interns are offered.
There does, however, seem to be backlash brewing. While intern culture is well engrained in Washington D.C., there have been a number of lawsuits filed against corporations such as Condé Nast which has lead it to shut down its unpaid internship program in 2014 (the corporation was found to be using its unpaid interns more like cattle rather than young students in need of on-the-job training). There have also been lawsuits filed against Fox Searchlight and NBC. Additionally, services such as internjustice.com dedicated to filing lawsuits against employers abusing unpaid internships have begun cropping up.
However, for the moment at least, it seems that the unpaid internship is here to stay. In October a judge ruled that unpaid interns cannot sue for sexual harassment. Perhaps the unpaid internship is just too sweet a deal for those with the money and the power to do something about it. Perhaps, along with advocacy groups and lawyers willing to litigate on behalf of interns, support groups for the unpaid workers of our nation’s capitol would not be a bad idea.