Unpaid Internships…? Unnecessary

Jessica Compton
Itinerant Thoughts
Published in
15 min readFeb 7, 2019

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This image is courtesy of Macleans.ca, Why unpaid internships mean inequality of opportunity, by Mike Moffatt.

Contrary to this position, Hokey Pokey wrote a piece defending unpaid internships. I thought his reasoning was sound, at least compared to his friend (the actual subject of his article). He spoke about his experiences and the experiences of those he knew and talked with. I thought it was … okay. Clearly biased but … okay. I gave him an applause of ten claps. It was better than the usual excuses served to the public. However, he only spoke for himself and the positive experiences of those he was in-touch with. It worked for him, and many others whom he met. That’s it. It lacked any evidence outside his own personal experience, and the author found a bunch of people which confirmed his biases just like his friend. The lynch pin of his entire argument is “Unpaid internships are about choice: choosing knowledge over money.”

Here is someone else’s experience with unpaid internships.

“Unpaid internships: do students really have a choice? When speaking with my peers, and reading various internship blogs, I found that most students felt that they didn’t have a choice when it came to picking internships. They felt ‘stuck’ and had to take an internship to gain ‘experience.’ These findings do not represent any sort of democracy, whatsoever. Democracy is about choice, fairness, and voice. It seems that these qualities are completely absent in a student’s internship search. My group named our blog ‘Student Choice’ to demonstrate irony; there is no choice when it comes to today’s job market.” ~ A Student’s “Choice” After Graduation: Problems of the Unpaid Internship, Corporate vs. Non-corporate, and Alternative Jobs, StudentChoice, 2011

Exploitation is still exploitation. Has it ever occurred to Hokey Pokey that maybe the disparity in economic power between intern and prospective employer is more than a bit unbalanced for his reasoning to be valid in every circumstance? I can see how comparing unpaid internships to “human trafficking” is more than a stretch, but reasoning that they are harmless and only about voluntarily “choosing knowledge over money” is also stretching it beyond what the reality actually is.

What initially popped into my head after reading his article was a stupid commercial I saw about … something … I could not say. The main character was a middling, well-off, white woman eager to start a new business. However, she was frazzled and swamped with work. She did not want to hire help. Maybe she could not afford to do so. Then it came to her, unpaid interns! The next thing I knew I was watching her recline in her office chair with a goofy, satisfied grin while an army of college age interns worked like busy bees and even served her coffee. A mixture of revulsion and envy welled up inside me, but much later, it was mostly revulsion. Some marketing team thought this was actually good enough to display. Defenders of unpaid internships everywhere should be outraged at such an irresponsible ad. Perhaps, I was not their target audience. I do not even remember what it was they were advertising. If it was about stoking the smouldering fires of working-class resentment or showing how utterly contemptible unpaid internships are, they succeeded.

This article by “Super” Julie Braun on SuperInterns.com has less bias than Hokey Pokey’s article. I thought it was a bit better. For one, they point out the crux of the issue. People do not do internships to have an exchange of ideas and learn the ins and outs of being a corporate toad for its own sake. They do so under some notion it will increase their survival or advance their careers. They do so because multi-billion dollar corporations have unprecedented control over our society and its culture. Society has been led to believe we need to pay a ransom for the employment we need to survive, because we already pay a ransom for the education we need to become useful and productive to capitalist enterprises. Some will shout “economic reasons” as to why this is so. These “reasons” often entail the inevitability of worker oppression for the system to function. That means entry into employment and education must be kept very difficult, even if those “reasons” are unreasonable. If workers’ lives improve too much too quickly, employers lose their dictatorial advantage over workers.

We also have Adam Ruins Everything to explain things in stark, comedic relief. So there is that, too.

By the way, both sources I linked to are a bit dated. The Department of Labor’s guidelines have changed. I will discuss them later in the article.

Well, what do people against unpaid internships have to say for themselves? They, first, point out the obvious. Employers want cheap labor, and you cannot have it any cheaper than “free.” The free-market cannot function without an abundance of cheap or free (slave) labor. Another valid point that was raised was the obligatory classism which discriminates against those who cannot afford to earn this “experience.” Poor immigrants, students suffering under mountains of debt, and those who have no family support or are cash poor are negatively affected and cannot access the supposedly necessary internships. It is a constant reminder of where poor people stand within the pecking order, and it gives young adults from wealthier families a sense that they are somehow self-made or self-sufficient…. Maybe…. I mean, it seemed to have done the trick for Trump’s son, Eric.

Yes, Eric Trump used that old canard conservative, well-off folks love to spite the working class with, “What?! You want an education, healthcare, and a fair wage?! You want MOOOOAR! Nothing was handed to me. You have to work for it!”

The more things change the more they stay the same.

I think people are missing the point when they look at unnecessary jobs like unpaid internships and think it is “all about the money” or some asinine reason like “gaining the necessary experience to enter the workforce” or something condescending, such as “Millennials have no work ethic. Those lazy bums.” The purpose of such “employment” is a sort of preparation for corporate life, yes? I will not deny it. It prepares young adults for their role in the corporate hierarchy and what they should expect. “What should they expect,” you might ask? Well, they should expect some kind of harassment or hazing for starters. Indeed, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act does not cover your backside as an unpaid intern, but your corporate handlers might and most likely in an inappropriate way. To an unpaid laborer, the lack of legal protection in this country might as well mean indentured servitude or slavery to whatever corporate sponsor takes unpaid labor. I would have called it wage-slavery; however, that would imply some sort of monetary compensation for doing what amounts to secretary work.

Even before the onset of the 2008 recession, college students and recent grads eagerly, if not desperately, sought out unpaid internships hoping to gain the necessary experience to land a paid job. Unfortunately, rather than provide a structured educational environment for interns, many, if not most, employers treat interns like entry level employees without providing them any compensation. In the end, rather than acquiring critical experience helpful to starting their career, most often these unpaid interns end up doing menial work like cleaning the office refrigerator and running personal errands for their supervisors. All the while their colleges and universities continue to charge thousands of dollars in tuition for academic credit, while providing little or no oversight of the interns’ activities. ~ U.S. News: Paid Internships Benefits Interns and Employers, by Lloyd Ambinder and LaDonna M. Lusher, 2014

Another reason unpaid internships are exploitative and unnecessary is due to the fact that unpaid interns have the same likelihood of becoming an employee as a person who has not gone through the internship process at all. However, chances of receiving a job offer as a paid intern increases dramatically once the internship is completed. This actually makes quite a bit of sense. A company which actually cares about their interns as prospective employees would see the money, time, nurturing and training as a worthwhile investment.

Paid internships are better for companies overall. It allows for a more diverse workplace and gives poorer candidates a chance to show their merits. More qualified workers will apply. It also benefits the corporate image and demonstrates goodwill toward the larger community. As employees, paid interns are protected under the law from certain forms of discrimination and detrimental working conditions. The economy benefits from paid internships. Paid interns are tax-payers. They pay into unemployment insurance and social security. The increase the number of paid entry-level positions and decrease the unemployment rate.

The number one reason given for ending unpaid internships was companies ran affront of the Department of Labor’s guidelines. To begin with, they were untenable and inflexible towards for-profit businesses. Rule 4 was particularly difficult to work out: “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.” Many for-profit companies found themselves running afoul of the law and losing class-action lawsuits for such violations. The moral and legal morass surrounding unpaid internships nearly did them in entirely. However, that has all changed as of last year, 2018. The new Department of Labor’s guidelines are top-to-bottom pro-business legislation. They are even a bit vague.

The guidelines are as follows. One, do not expect compensation as an intern. Two, the “training” or “experience” provided must be in an educational capacity similar to an institution like a college or university. Three, the internship is tied to formal course work or the intern receives academic credit. Four, the internship accommodates the intern’s current academic commitments. Five, the duration of the internship is in part limited to the extent the intern receives “beneficial learning.” Six, interns are supposed to complement, rather than displace, the work paid employees perform while providing “significant educational benefits to the intern.” Seven, do not expect a employment once the internship has concluded.

Rule 2 and 4 in the original guidelines gave interns at least some protection against potential abuse or mismanagement. Rule 2, “the internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.” Rule 4, “the employer which trains the intern must not derive any immediate advantage.” Granted, these rules made it nearly impossible for for-profit companies to comply. I would wager that was the entire point. There must have been some foresight that these practices would eventually be phased out, but NO MORE! For years, businesses were shamed for abusively exploiting their interns and refusing to pay them. Now if it is for the sake of “experience” or “academic credit,” they can exploit all they want worry free.

You may feel inclined to notice that these new guidelines are not so bad. They appear to insure unpaid internships will be tied to some academic function. There are the same glaring problems as last time. Chiefly, “Do not expect payment or employment.” Remember, everything costs money, and I would hope an intern’s time is worth more than this disgrace. The vague language leaves plenty of room for doubt. Notice that for-profit education is not excluded from the guidelines, and we all know what credits from a for-profit institution like the Art Institute are worth. Also, who decides what is accommodating to the intern? Who decides what are “significant educational benefits,” or what even is “beneficial” to the intern? These are qualifiers which must be addressed, because I seriously doubt the intern will have much say over a corporate board. They could be addressed in court like the famous “Black Swan” case, but….

“What started out in hospitals long ago, and later turned into a well-intentioned corporate recruiting and training tool, has become in recent decades something altogether different. Unscrupulous employers quietly drove a truck through the Walling loophole; schools made it official with academic credit and internship fairs; government looked the other way; and desperate young people have to play along.” ~ TIME, Black Swan Event: The Beginning of the End of Unpaid Internships, by Ross Perlin, 2013

Looking at the new guidelines, that “loophole” has turned into a legal noose which will strangle one unlucky enough to be abused by the unpaid internship system. Too much slants in favor of the employer.

Adam Smith’s warning about the businessmen and capitalists of his time in his Wealth of Nations still rings true today.

“The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from [businessmen or capitalists] ought always be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted, till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.” ~ Wealth of Nations, Book I, Ch. 11, part 3, Adam Smith, 1776

We supposedly live in a mostly egalitarian society. Despite this observation, there is also a glaring obstacle to full emancipation. That would be economic rights. The US also lags behind other developed countries when it comes to accepting universal human rights. So … there is that, as well. Economic power trumps all in liberal society. If you do not have it, you do not have the upper-hand in any deal and have very few actual rights or liberties. Legal representation costs money, housing costs money, food costs money, education costs money, lots and lots of money … are you getting the picture? Nearly every human interaction nowadays costs you something socially and economically. Precarity rules over the lives of the young and middle-aged. Without any economic rights or security, we basically have no control over our own lives.

It was not always that way, but that was the best system our rich, slave-owning founders and their mercantile compatriots could come up with. We could … oh, I don’t know … organize and demand a fairer system, which was what the labor movement was about. We have to work for what we can get, right? However, the House of Un-American Activities Committee and other such programs put an end to all that “collectivist” nonsense. Even though this committee was disbanded in 1975, Newt Gingrich talked on Fox and Friends of reviving it in 2016. The Democrats have also caught the Cold War fever and have also begun a new wave of McCarthyism. But that is another topic entirely.

It is time to dispel the popular opinion that unpaid internships are somehow “optional.” Well, yes…. Of course, on paper any internship is optional. Just like on paper we still have such rights as habeas corpus. Yet the reality is quite different, especially if you are a lower class than the upper-middle and elite classes.

For example, it is “optional” to order a shake and fries with your cheeseburger at a fast-food joint. Yet everyday of your life you have been bombarded with coercive, in-your-face advertising to ensure someday you order that shake and fries. Plus, it helps that the food is nearly as addicting as crack cocaine. It is too easy to over-eat foods packed with sugars and fats.

This is what advertising looks like to people such as myself.

Advertising and marketing are very pernicious. They heavily influence how we perceive each other, ourselves, and the world around us.

I have seen internships advertised in such ways as to give the impression that employers view interns as peons or serfs. We are so desperate for work while the employer maintains a certain sense of entitlement to our labor and a personal class contempt for workers.

NonCompete uses his experience as a social media marketer to elucidate how pervasive a problem marketing really is in our digitized society.

You are shown respect and favor for the things you consume incessantly within society. The pressure to indulge and the fear of missing out eventually override any sense of rationality you may have cultivated. The need to “succeed” is not an actual need. It is something you are conditioned everyday of your life to accept. The constant marketing and authoritarian conditioning ensures no one will ever have full control over who they are or what they value. As my history professor told his class, “You are what your parents tell you, what religion tells you, what the authorities and society tell you, until you reject them entirely and decide for yourself.” (That also means rejecting liberal economics and capitalism, at least to me.) I see commercials for different types of employment, especially the military, advertised the exact same way. What we are being sold are private, undemocratic governments and commodified status symbols you can obtain by joining their side.

On basic cable, the “Discovery Channel” has become a series of advertisements for dangerous work, such as gold mining and crab fishing, and survivalists. You, too, can live the adventure and know the thrill of risking your life, proving your worth as a man to boss-father, so some bourgeois, nouveau riche can eat gold encrusted crab and not give a damn about your sacrifice.

Media is awash with articles and programs guilt-tripping millennials about a lack of “work ethic.” They must learn how to subordinate themselves to their corporate masters. The constant indoctrination and information deluging our senses are all about proselytizing a very important message. There is no society. “There are individual men and women and there are families….” There are families, familial families, corporate families, religious families, families of a whole host of capitalist institutions, and they are all hierarchical and undemocratic. We do not get to choose our family. We do not get to choose our society. We are in essence commodities and tools for the capitalist hurt-machine. So let us dispense with the “optional” excuse. We do not have the option of opting out of the current paradigm. Try to change it or disassociate, we only have history to tell us what happens to those who make the attempt.

Farewell, Democracy! I hardly knew ye! Maybe in another time and place I can finally be free! The image is courtesy of StudentChoice.

I wished Hokey Pokey was more class conscious, and he should have realized the lack of rights an unpaid intern has compared to a paid intern or a regular employee, as well as other advantages and disadvantages. The article was too reminiscent of the specious reasoning always used to justify something so silly. The “You are trading time for experience. Start at the bottom” canard I heard so much throughout the years turned into, “Well, you pay for colleges to educate you. Unpaid internships are vocational training. You should pay for them, too. You have a choice.”

We did not always have to pay so much for college, and after graduation, employers used to line up to take new hires, and the jobs paid well. Now, we have “side hustles,” GoFundMes, and Patreons. We do this because LIVING COSTS TOO MUCH DAMN MONEY!

Employers used to train new hires, too, out of pocket. They still do in some areas. They are sometimes called, “paid internships”. Colleges used to provide vocational training, and many still do. San Diego State, the college I graduated from, provided vocational training in Microsoft programs for new hires. Companies would pay employees out of India on H1B1 visas for this vocational training. There was an opportunity for regular students to benefit from these programs, but the person in charge of the computer science department at the time rejected the notion. “Vocational programs are not academic, and the computer science program is only for academic degrees.” I learned this from my sympathetic ethics professor. Here is another winner. During a senior workshop, a fellow student gave a little speech about what to expect in the jobs world outside of college, “You have to whore yourself to find work.” Oh, joy.

Look at what we are forced to accept as normal? We have to pay more and more of what we do not have for employers to notice us. Criminy!

Focusing just on unpaid internships themselves is not enough. We need to ask why corporations need unpaid interns. Why do they need to exploit workers? There is no respect in such a position, and we are not equal to a corporation in rights or dignity. Do corporations feel invoking their super-consumer status and desire to consume human society enough of a reason for us to accept it? Do we accept that we are products to be consumed by a more powerful and respected consumer…? No…? Then we should not accept unpaid internships.

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Jessica Compton
Itinerant Thoughts

Always finding myself in a liminal state, a stranger in a strange land. I am a dabbler, a dreamer, and a thinker. Totes support the LGBTQIA+. Computer Scientist