Lame defenses of unpaid internships

Opposition to the intern rights movement has manifested itself in at least four types of messages, especially in the aftermath of a federal district court’s June 2013 ruling in Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures that unpaid interns working on the production of “Black Swan” were entitled to pay under federal and state wage and hour laws. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and you’ll see that none of these defenses hold up.

“Hey, it worked for me!”

(version 1.0)

Version 1.0 of this defense is a sort of gentle, perhaps chiding defense of unpaid internships, coming from older graduates and grounded in the idea that hey, it worked for me, so it should work for you.  For example, in a column for the human resources magazine Workforce Management, managing editor Rick Bell waxes nostalgic about his own unpaid internship experience working for a “tough as nails” news station boss who gave him invaluable experience. He goes on to recommend a change in the law to preserve unpaid internships.

This kind of soggy remembrance (which, by the way,  one hears a lot from the non-profit sector) combines with the dubious assumption that unpaid internships are mostly about “training” and less about work.  It also raises questions about whether these sentimental defenders of unpaid internships share the personal financial pressures facing today’s heavily-indebted college students and recent graduates.

(version 2.0)

Version 2.0 covers more recent graduates for whom the unpaid intern system worked and who now can’t understand why others are complaining about it. In many cases they worked hard and proved their worth, but they may have had some assistance paying the bills while they worked for free. Some, to their credit, may have worked burdensome income-earning jobs while doing the internship.

But it’s also quite possible that they were the fortunate winners of a lottery. Consider that recent survey data by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) raises doubts about the job market clout of unpaid internships. NACE’s survey of 2013 college graduates found that among those “who had applied for a job, those who took part in paid internships enjoyed a distinct advantage over their peers who undertook an unpaid experience or who didn’t do an internship.”

NACE further reported:

Results of NACE’s 2013 Student Survey show that 63.1 percent of paid interns received at least one job offer. In comparison, only 37 percent of unpaid interns got an offer; that’s not much better than results for those with no internship—35.2 percent received at least one job offer.

In terms of starting salary, too, paid interns did significantly better than other job applicants: The median starting salary for new grads with paid internship experience is $51,930—far outdistancing their counterparts with an unpaid internship ($35,721) or no internship experience ($37,087).

This is the third consecutive year that NACE’s annual student survey has captured internship data for paid and unpaid interns; in each survey, paid interns exceeded their peers in job offers and starting salaries.

“How dare you!”

A second defense of unpaid internships carries a more ridiculing tone toward those who are challenging the practice.  For example, in 2011, CNN program host Anderson Cooper took to the airwaves to ridicule the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures. Apparently the son of heiress Gloria Vanderbilt just couldn’t deal with these entitled interns.

In reality, financing an unpaid internship can be a tremendous burden for someone who doesn’t appear on the Vanderbilt family tree. An unpaid summer gig in Washington, D.C., for example, may require thousands of dollars for housing, food, travel, and other essentials. For those who cannot secure such funding, the opportunities simply don’t exist.

“It’s academic!”

A third defense is coming from the higher education industry.  In 2010, for example, 15 university presidents wrote to the U.S. Secretary of Labor, urging that the Department of Labor “reconsider undertaking the regulation of internships,” which have proven to be “valuable and sought-after opportunities for American college students.”

Perhaps the most outrageous statement in the presidents’ letter is this characterization: “Some internships are paid and some, on a mutually agreed upon basis, are uncompensated.” The letter suggests that students have a degree of choice over whether they are paid, perhaps even implying that some opt not to receive compensation. In the meantime, universities that broker unpaid internships may charge tuition in return for academic credit and facilitate the flow of unpaid labor to benefit employers.

“You job-killing Commies!” 

The fourth, most hyperbolic defense of unpaid internships can only be characterized as an ideological rant.  A prime example is a Fiscal Times article by Liz Peek titled “Obama Criminalized Unpaid Internships and Killed Jobs,” published in the aftermath of the Glatt decision:

In yet another blow to young people, a federal judge has made it nearly impossible for companies to take on unpaid interns. This flies in the face of President Obama’s incessant appeal for more job training.

Turns out, President Obama loves job training programs – but only the kind that increase our budget deficit. In other words, those provided by the federal government. The private sector kind, not so much.[5]

The column closes with a personal attack on lead plaintiffs Eric Glatt and Alex Footman:

It is of course the very people that these two litigious fellows think they are helping that will be hurt by this outcome. Fox says they will appeal the decision. One can only hope so. One can also hope that these two nitwits find it challenging to land their next job.

Beyond the contemptuous rhetoric, the article avoids the obvious logic that if you want to create jobs, you can start by paying interns who engage in real work.  Furthermore, the column’s headline crosses into the ridiculous, confusing the enforcement of civil statutory provisions with criminal prosecution.


Many thanks to friends on the Facebook Intern Labor Rights Discussion Forum for helping me to sort through these categories.

One response

  1. During my educational experience, I put in approximately two years as an unpaid intern. The learning experience was most valuable to me, to say the least.

    After my undergraduate internship, I did receive an employment offer at the site that I worked at. At the graduate level, where I invested my time into two nine-month internships, I did not receive an employment offer.

    At the latter sites their employment quota was reached, although they were accustomed to extensively utilizing the internship pool. At one site, there were three of us working that year.

    Personally, I support the premise of requiring that internship be paid for their work. It demonstrates that we, as a society, take these folks seriously for the efforts that they are investing in their education and training experiences. Also, when someone is paid for the work they do, that contractual agreement can foster a more respectful interchange between the parties involved, as it places the parties on a more equal footing, whereby someone is paying and someone is receiving pay for their time..

    Having said that, I, also, strongly believe in the concept of volunteerism, which I do think is fundamentally a separate concept from internships. I do volunteer, and I always have engaged in it, on some level, throughout my adult years.

    I will say that after having completed my unpaid internship experiences, for which I paid the school receive credits for, I did take some time off from volunteerism, because I felt as though I had already ‘gave at the office, so to speak..

    Since then, my desire to give to the whole of life through volunteerism has been rejuvenated. However, I pick and choose my projects very very carefully, so as to not experience a burnout.

    In essence, I truly do believe that unpaid internships and not having a choice as to whether one is paid or not, is taking advantage of those individuals who are embarking upon a honorable endeavor to further themselves so that they can give back in some quality way.

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