The Unpaid Intern: A Parable Of Socioeconomic Inequality

By John Vitzileos

“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” they said. “You too can be successful.”

The American dream and its promise of social mobility is quickly being shattered as students are graduating from college with crushing debt and limited employment opportunities. Many attribute this to the recent economic crisis or “just a slump that will pass.” However, a closer look at the job market might reveal that industries are often structured to benefit the elite starting from a young age.

As university graduation rates are at an all-time high, industries are becoming oversaturated with workers and the bar for employment is being set higher and higher. One of the unfortunate paradoxes that has come to define the job market is that you often need to have entry-level job experience to get an entry-level job. In other words, the requirements for these positions are likely to be based on skills not obtained from school, such as experience in the industry, project portfolio samples, and skills acquired through hands-on work.

Most college students attempt to meet these demands through internships. During the school year, the summer and even after graduation, a career-oriented student will try to amass as many internships as possible, all in the hope of setting him/herself up as well as possible to obtain full-time employment.

However, when perusing the internship market, the reality that these students confront is that many positions, especially at prestigious companies are unpaid. There is nothing quite like the feeling of finding an internship that would be the perfect fit for your career goals but scrolling to the bottom of the page to find the all-too-common phrase: “This internship is unpaid, but applicants are strongly encouraged to seek outside sources of funding or university credit.”

Many think that this “unpaid intern” phenomenon is a byproduct of the turbulent economy. But another unfortunate reality is that unpaid internships are on the rise even in industries that are poised for high growth in the coming years. For example, healthcare consulting and information management firms have significantly reduced the amount of compensation they offer to interns, substituting pay for “university credit.”

Additionally, many companies offer unpaid internships not because they are struggling, but because they have found that interns are “happy to work for free.” For this reason alone, 42% of companies do not pay their interns.

These internships can also be unpleasant. The grueling hours, high levels of stress, and intimidation faced by interns are evocative of scenes from The Devil Wears Prada. In fact, the publishing, entertainment and fashion industries are “notorious for exploiting unpaid interns.” A number of cases have recently unfolded in which companies like Condé Nast, NBC Universal, and Elite Model Management have been sued for their predatory employment practices toward interns, with many paying out large settlements.

Jorge Molina, a senior majoring in screenwriting at the University of Southern California, says that unpaid positions are quite common in creative industries like film and theatre.

“These internships are almost a given to get started in the industry.” More often than not, Molina says that the value of intern work lies in “networking opportunities.” Entertainment companies are able to capitalize on the fact that students are eager to “get their foot in the door” to build their professional network and résumé.

Another aspect of the aforementioned paradox is that many companies hire a large percentage of their new employees from their previous intern populations. Therefore, if a student is interested in working at a particular company, one of the most important things he/she can do is to try to get an internship there. Companies can then exploit their eagerness, sometimes even their desperation to offer unpaid positions; they know students will work very hard for very little if they dangle the carrot of a potential job opportunity.

Internships that offer compensation are centralized mainly in the finance industry and other business-related fields. Microsoft and Google in particular are nationally rated among the best companies to intern at. But as you can imagine, the lines for these positions go out the door and just about every applicant has an ironclad résumé.

For students who are economically disadvantaged or have already accrued thousands of dollars in debt, finding the time and the financial resources to intern for free are the most pressing concerns. Those in more privileged circumstances can intern during the school year or summer with the support of their families while those struggling financially must use that time to earn money for bills, groceries, and other living expenses at temporary wage jobs which have no positive impact on professional career prospects.

During my time interning in Chicago this summer, a friend of mine named Priscilla Lavagnolli, a pre-health student at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign told me about the struggles of trying to be a competitive applicant for graduate physician assistant programs while balancing a rigorous academic schedule and work that help pay the bills.

Some PA programs can require up to 2,000 hours of shadowing experience — all unpaid. Lavagnolli and her two sisters are all currently enrolled in college, which has put a hefty financial strain on her parents. To help shoulder the burden, she worked 2 jobs last semester (approximately 30 hours a week) while remaining a full-time student and shadowing doctors on weekends.

“I can safely say it was by far the worst semester of my life,” Lavagnolli said in reflection.

Lavagnolli’s experience mirrors the struggles faced by economically challenged students in an employment culture that values unpaid work experience so heavily. But another problem is geography. Internships in fashion and entertainment are often located Los Angeles or New York, and those in politics are located in Washington D.C. Even a conservative estimate of room and board for a summer intern can add up to $1,500 per month. So not only are students forced to not work for pay, they must actually pay to work.

Wealth often breeds more wealth, meaning that those born into money are on smoother paths to socioeconomic success. The corollary to this is that poverty breeds more poverty. While the foundation and legal guise of the unpaid internship is that students consensually volunteer their time and labor in exchange for experience, skills, and networking, working and middle-class people simply cannot afford it.

Ross Perlin, the author of Intern Nation fantastically describes this problem:

“Unpaid internships create a pay-to-play system since only some people can afford to work for zero dollars for longer than a week or two. This ultimately exacerbates social inequality because key professions get filled up with people from privileged backgrounds; it not only affects who gets ahead and does well, it also plays a big role in terms of the voices we hear in the media, politics, arts, etc.”

The unfortunate byproduct of a disproportionate emphasis on intern experience is a cycle of poverty, where those graduating without internship experience are less equipped with the résumés companies are looking for — even if the job that the graduate is applying for is entry-level. The job market is segmented by relationship to wealth as the less affluent are effectively shut out of industries with social, cultural and political clout, creating a cyclical effect in which the privileged will continue to hold on to power.

This is not unique to the United States. News about United Nations intern David Hyde went viral after it was discovered that he had been living in a tent because he couldn’t afford housing in Geneva, Switzerland, one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in. The U.N., the world’s largest NGO, reportedly employed over 4,000 unpaid interns in the last year. Hyde later resigned his post after the media attention spiraled out of control.

Several days after the news broke, Hyde publicly declared that “interns all over the world need to come together and push for the recognition of our value and our human rights.”

The obvious irony is that the U.N., as the world’s largest NGO responsible for addressing pervasive global inequality, continues to systematically promote unpaid labor. It reportedly employed over 4,000 unpaid interns in the last year.

The injustice of unpaid internships has a social impact that is broader than denying wages to individuals. It is a business model that comes at a cost to the public while benefitting private interests. Steven Greenhouse, a labor reporter for the New York Times, describes the intern system as “profit-making businesses ignor[ing] minimum wage and overtime laws and employ[ing] young workers without compensating them.” The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that in the coming year, businesses can collectively avoid paying up to $600 million in wages by keeping internships unpaid.

They also avoid paying payroll taxes, unemployment taxes, and worker’s compensation premiums. A lawyer representing Xuedan Wang, a former intern at Harper’s Bazaar, against the Hearst Corporation points out that not only does this deprive interns of the benefits of social security programs, it cheats the government out of funding for them.

Legal protections against sexual or racial discrimination are also not applicable to interns. While Title VII and Title IX provisions have protections in place for employees, none exist for unpaid workers. A number of court cases surrounding this lapse have recently emerged across the country, but just like any other legal process, decisions will be contradictory and no decisions will be finalized in the near future.

As employer expectations for résumés rise and the number of paid internships decline, the path to upward economic mobility quickly becomes riddled with hurdles that only those who already have means can jump over. In regard to this societal failure to provide equal opportunity, a mentor of mine recently gave me this advice:

“When it comes to unpaid internships, do not take them. Do not take them because you value your labor. Do not take them because you deserve, and are worth more than that. Do not take them because they are ruining the craft that you hold dear to your heart. By all means, do not take them.”

Reach Columnist John Vitzileos here.