The menace of unpaid internships

A lot of people newly entering the work force or trying to find work in a new area after being laid off discover a catch-22, that employers often require them to have some experience but that they can’t get experience until they get employed. Unpaid internships are often touted as a way of breaking that cycle, a means of getting work experience without the employer incurring any long-term financial commitment to an untested employee. Hence such internships are becoming increasingly common as many succumb to their lure, hoping they will improve their chances of future paid employment.

In this interview on The Colbert Report Ross Eisenbrey, Vice President of the Economic Policy Institute explains why unpaid internships are bad.

(This clip appeared on February 28, 2012. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)

Although there are supposed to be strict rules to prevent exploitation, they are rarely enforced and some companies and employers take advantage of hard times to get free labor. Another bad consequence that he did not mention in the interview is that this practice disproportionately benefits the children of the wealthy. But I found that he had written an article addressing exactly that point.

Unpaid internships, in particular, exclude students from poorer families who can’t afford to work for nothing for a summer or a semester, especially after they graduate from college with tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt. The children of affluent families, on the other hand, can afford to live in the most expensive cities in the U.S., such as New York and Washington, making contacts, building their resumes, and sometimes even learning skills, while their parents pay for their room and board, travel and entertainment. Before even taking into account the family connections that reserve some of the best opportunities for the sons and daughters of the affluent, the $4,000-$5,000 cost of, for example, moving to Washington and living for 10 weeks prevents almost any working class kid from taking an unpaid internship.

The deck is increasingly stacked against the lower-income classes in the US. This is just one of the reasons why social mobility in the US is now less than in those countries that we used to think of as having a rigid class structure (as in Europe) and income inequality is rising in the US while declining in Latin America.


  1. unbound says

    “Although there are supposed to be strict rules to prevent exploitation…”

    The fact that these unpaid internships exist at all is exploitation. Let’s be real, companies can absolutely afford to pay at least minimum wage for the positions. This is just another method of increasing profits since they’ve found that people are willing to accept the situation.

  2. Kevin says

    A few years back, I ran a small business unit that was a part of a larger mega-conglomerate. And during the summer we hired an intern.

    That intern was paid the going rate for the position she was in. Not minimum wage, not less-than minimum wage, not no-wage. She got paid the equivalent to what an entry-level person would make in the same position.

    She was thrilled — because what we were offering was way more than what she would have made as a check-out clerk at the Wal-Mart (she was quite literally plucked from those ranks). We were thrilled — she was a great worker, a fast learner, and a dedicated employee.

    And the paperwork onus on me was minimal. She was required to get “an” internship for her degree program, and all I had to do was an end-of-internship evaluation. Which was less-detailed than our normal employee evaluation.

    I can’t see doing it any other way. It’s the only ethical approach. Frankly, I would be highly suspicious of doing business with companies that had unpaid intern policies. If they treat their own people like that, how are they going to treat me?

  3. theScreeble says

    I am glad to see some focus on the troubling issues with unpaid internships in professional careers. There is another worker exploit corporations have increasingly been using in the labor market that IMO needs even more awareness, the shift from employees to sub-contractors. Many companies are only having new hires that will come on as subs, often at the same or even lower salary they were paying their employees, while allowing them to bypass additional costs like health insurance, accident insurance, equipment, HR employees, and on and on…
    This shifts much of the costs of business to the subs making their effective pay rates much smaller than they would otherwise seem to be and causes many issues, not the least of which is that it leaves many forced to forgo insurance.

  4. Peter says

    That’s great, Kevin. But what you described is not really an internship, despite the paperwork you filled out at the end of her — employment. If someone is making minimum wage or better then it’s not an internship. I’m glad the situation worked out for you and her, but it’s not the sort of internship that’s acting as a downward pressure on wages. In other words, not a problem-internship.

    I entered the workforce in my industry just ahead of the shift to reliance on interns. I’ve seen what happens. My position paid $8.50/hr, but stayed at that rate for about 4 years. During those 4 years the number of intern positions went from 2 to 14 or 15. Interns were used in all departments, and despite them being called internships these kids were already out of college.

    I’ve got no problem with an actual educational internship -- an arrangement wherein a student is awarded 3 or 4 credits in exchange for 3 or 4 hours a week working in a field related to their area of study. I think that makes sense.

    But that’s not how internships work in my experience. Interns are used to fill positions that would normally go to entry level employees. They are paid far less than minimum wage (100 to 150/week) and are expected to work 40 hours just like everyone else. Sometimes they’re expected to work special events on a weekend or evening. It’s clearly an abuse of cheap labor.

    And the bit about it benefiting children of the wealthy is spot on. I’ve only seen 1 woman come through the system who wasn’t a child of privilege. All the rest were from families that are *extremely* well off. Maybe not 1%ers, but certainly 2%ers.

    When we finally organized into a union the elimination of interns from the covered departments was on the list of non-negotiables. Made me proud.

  5. cathyw says

    The idea that unpaid internships are inherently exploitative almost goes without saying. The question is, what to do about it? Even if there was a mass boycott of unpaid jobs, I think enough of the already-privileged would continue to participate that the practice wouldn’t end due to lack of supply -- and then the benefits of networking and future opportunities would accrue towards that end of the spectrum even further.

  6. Tim says

    An important topic the discussion of which is long, long overdue. During the late ’80’s during my undergrad year, several affluent friends got (as other posters have pointed out) unpaid internships in the DC and San. Fran. areas. Parents paid for all expenses. My friends urged me to apply, but I had to work summers.

    During my graduate years in the late ’90’s, my graduate program required several internships. The college told us graduate students that we could be paid, but nobody could find an internship that paid. (And why would organizations pay for internships when they know that students will work for free?). I landed an internship where, the very first day, I was given a stack of charts and booked full of clients. No education, no training … no nothing.

    This abusive situation needs to change.

    I fully agree with cathyw, though … what can be done?

  7. says

    Shalom Mano,

    As a magazine editor for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in the ’80s I supervised several interns. I confess that I have no idea what they were paid because the interns were assigned to me by corporate. I can say that I treated each intern as if they were a new, entry-level (assistant editor) hire and I gave each the same tasks and responsibilities I had entrusted each of my assistant editors with over their initial few months.

    I also had this discussion with a a freelance writer who had agreed to mentor a college senior in a journalism program in exchange for basic secretarial — primarily filing — duties. The deal there was no money exchanged hands, but the student worked for four hours a day, three times a week as a secretary and four hours a day, three times a week, as a journalist. Was that exploitative? Perhaps, but I don’t think so since the intern did get equal time and the benefit of the writer’s experience and wasn’t just fetching coffee.

    A bigger issue here is if free internships are the only way students can gain required experience, and they can’t afford to work for free, then only the well-off are going to get access to the experience. I know that this is ticket-punching, but I also see it as one more stop on the One Percent Railroad.



  8. P Smith says

    I’m amazed by a glaring omission in the topic and discussion.

    The inability of the poor to take unpaid internships isn’t a side effect or an unintended consequence. It’s deliberate, and done with the intention of weeding out the poor from such jobs. It’s an institutionalized and intentional way of keeping the poor -- especially non-whites -- out. Because they don’t come from money, they’ll never have access to money. The inability for the poor to take unpaid positions is then spun into blame of the poor -- “They don’t have the drive or willingness to work hard.” If they didn’t have to eat or need a home, they would take the “jobs”.

    People want to pretend that the story of Chris Gardner is a “feel good” story of perseverence. (Gardner is the real person fictionalized in the sappy and insufferable movie, “The Pursuit Of Happyness”.) It isn’t, it’s an example of how those who don’t have are kept out of positions they are capable and deserving of. It was only Gardner’s perseverence that got him in, not any kindness by those who were profiting from his unpaid labour. I wouldn’t doubt that the movie accurately portrayed Gardner’s real competition for the job -- all white.

    Calling Gardner’s story a “success” reminds me of George Bu**sh** and his disconnect from reality that the working poor face.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *