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May 30, 2006


Anya Kamenetz has an interesting op/ed about the hidden costs of unpaid internships. [NYT]

Kamenetz argues that unpaid internships foster an unhealthy level of identification between impressionable interns and their bosses. She estimates that free intern labour worth nearly $124 million/year to corporate America. No doubt, all this free work exerts downward pressure on wages. Why pay someone minimum wage to sort mail when you can get a college kid to do it for free?

These are all legitimate concerns. However, my primary worry about unpaid internships is that they undermine meritocracy by imposing hidden costs on young workers. College is expensive enough already. Unpaid work is a luxury for people who don't have to support themselves.

Excessive reliance on internship probably creates a barrier to upward mobility within corporations. Nobody expects that a Pfizer mailroom employee is going to advance in the management structure. However, if you're already a student a prestigious college and you can afford to sort mail for free, you can get a leg up at Pfizer. Instead of keeping an eye out for talented workers in lower-level jobs who want to work their way up, managers can fast-track college kids with impressive pedigrees.

The internship bargain is that ambitious young people will trade work for networking opportunities and a prestigious line-item on a resume. The implicit promise is that an internship will help you get a better entry-level job or improve your chances at getting into graduate or professional school.

Of course, unpaid interns are doing jobs that entry-level hires used to do, especially in prestigious fields like publishing and public policy. Entry-level jobs in these fields also tend to pay on the assumption that people's parents can afford to support them during a de facto apprenticeship in a major American city.

This isn't just a problem for college grads, it's a problem for society at large.

Universities could help by creating more co-op programs. My undergraduate school, Simon Fraser, is a leader in co-op education. The university works closely with corporations and the government place students in entry-level jobs that pay better than market rates and allow the students to do work that is actually relevant to their education. One of the main arguments for interning that it provides first-hand experience in an industry. Unfortunately, at lot of internships just put students to work doing menial tasks. Sorting mail in a law firm probably doesn't tell you a lot about whether you'd enjoy being a lawyer. By contrast, a good co-op program is designed to ensure that the work/experience bargain is rewarding for both students and employers. Most importantly, all students can afford to participate in the program because wages are at least as good as those in the job market. Therefore, students compete on the basis of merit for slots in the program and job placements. This pre-screening makes them extra-valuable to employers who are willing to pay slightly higher wages in exchange for a better class of applicant.

Hat tip to Garance at TAPPED.


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hell yes -- i could never work internships in nyc when i was in college because i had to work for money to help pay my way. this gap on the resume has proven to be a real killer when applying for jobs after college.

this should be of extra concern to liberal/left writers, as small magazines are some of the gravest offenders. wonder why the press corps is so bad? certainly the fact that it's stocked with rich kids from the bottom up has a little something to do with it. they were all born on third base and think they hit a triple.

Echoing what Eliot says. The MA is meaningless without the connections gained by a good internship. Poverty will kill your career.

With a military background, I never thought to much about interns before, but your post helped me connect internships with our old model of a conscripted Army.

One of the problems with the conscript system was that the Army probably had more men than it needed. But their labor was almost free, and was therefore treated cheaply. Soldier were often used for tasks that we now consider silly - painting rocks for "area beautification", for example.

With a professional Army, where soldiers have to be paid a wage that competes with the civilian sector, the leaders have a commodity - the soldiers' time - that has value and must be accounted for. The military isn't perfect, but the professional force of 5 years ago was substantially more effective than the old conscript force.

I note, in passing, that Tony Blair's eldest child had the opportunity to intern with two congress-critters. There's often a reciprocal arrangement with American kiddiwinks, and the parliamentary internship is a standard way for kids able to survive an unpaid summer in London to advance themselves. (I was offered a parliamentary internship and had to turn it down, because I simply couldn't arrange somewhere to stay.)

Now, there's a long history of casual internships over short periods in certain fields: the pissboy/girl-gopher at the film set, for instance. But that's an exception. In more conventional industries, the kids who have to go home for summer, live with their parents, and work minimum wage serving tables or suchlike are penalising themselves out of necessity.

I agree with this all pretty much except that I think that interning at a law firm (even sorting the mail) is a pretty good idea for someone who's considering being a lawyer, especially at a firm like the one one is interning at. Of course you can't then do what a lawyer does, but you get a chance to watch what they do, talk to them, see what the office life and work pace is like, etc. It's imperfect information, but much better than most people have when starting law school. My guess is that it's at least as likely to discourage people from going to law school as to encourage them.

Interning also reinforces the old-boy network aspect of academia, which is (through formal and informal recommendation systems) already too strong. People get an insider mentally and also become convinced (because it's effectively true) that connections are at least as important as talent.

I know that the universities do want to find the most talented people, among other things, but it's also true that academics tend to push people "they're comfortable with", which often means people who have gone to one of the best high schools (all the way down to "one of the best preschools".) After the sure-thing talented tenth are promoted, there will be a lot of coin-flips to be made, and the "right kind of person" will win.

I think the Democrats' domination at all levels by people from elite schools is crippling. Even if a Harvard grad came from a blue-collar neighborhood, going to Harvard is all about escaping from the blue-collar (or even lower-middle-class) world. When he goes back to his neighborhood people there might find him quite annoying.

"When he or she goes back to his or her neighborhood, people there might find him or her quite annoying.

I just don't see how you can ever stop rich, powerful people from taking care of their children, and in part they do that by taking care of each others' children. We don't kill each other in order to ensure our children become leader of the tribe anymore, but clearly one of the reasons to become rich and powerful is to ensure that your children do well.

I like to think that if I ever manage to build my own company I would hire people based on merit (and diversity, since IMHO homogenity is a weak point of many organizations), but if that entity grew to any significant size and then the mayor called and said, "how about taking my chief-of-staff's daughter as an intern this summer" could I then say no? What would the consequences be?


All forms of egalitarian and meritocratic ideology break down in practice when one's kids are involved. Everyone wants to give their kids "the best", not "the average" or "what they can earn".

calvin has always assumed that internships were great opportunities for college students to get some experience and a foot in the door. And, since calvin worked with young people at a public institution of higher education, didn't think about the other side of the coin. calvin viewed it as a win-win situation. Alas, another myth de-bunked. calvin is wiser, but also, regretfully, older, too.

I don't think we should stop anyone from taking care of their kids.

On the contrary, I think we should establish more co-op programs that make a better class of internship available to everyone on the basis of merit.

Sure, if rich kids don't get in, their parents will use their connections to make alternative arrangements. I don't have a problem with that, as long as we make sure that we create opportunities for kids who wouldn't otherwise have had them.

All forms of egalitarian and meritocratic ideology break down in practice when one's kids are involved. Everyone wants to give their kids "the best", not "the average" or "what they can earn".

You never met my parents, obviously. When I came to my father to ask for $100 to pay for the entrance fee to law school (the first time in my life I had ever asked him for a loan), my stepmother offered to buy me a bus ticket to Calgary instead, where I could "go get a job."

I was a lucky winner of the co-op lottery at my law school. Yes, it was actually a lottery -- the theory is that random participation helps to keep all of the opportunities out of the hands of the academic elite. I wouldn't have been able to attend law school if I hadn't won that lottery. Co-op showed me things about legal work that were never, ever mentioned inside the law school, and largely contributed to the realization that I didn't want to be a lawyer.

I disagree that networking is just what talentless people do to get ahead. How else do people display their "talent" but in the workplace? A larger problem is that virtually nothing that you learn in college will help you be successful in your job. There are tons of talented people, but from the perspective of the HR office, it makes a lot more sense to take someone with a solid reference and a short but successful work history than a phi beta kappa honors grad with no work experience. They may both be talented.

In hiring, employers are making decisions based very limited information and thus their hiring patterns tend to reflect generalities about what tends to produce a better candidate. A reference from a trusted college is very valuable information.

It's unreasonable to presume that those giving and receiving the recommendations are either incompetent or have some selfish ulterior motive. In my experience, and this is speaking generally, good contacts are more often the result of good performance. Of course it's imperfect and open to all sorts of abuses. I've been burned before and will again because of it. But what is the imperfect alternative.

In fact, in some industries, networking is the only thing one can do to combat the real "old-boy" mentality, which is that only people from certain schools can get a foot in the door. Most big investment banks, for example, recruit mainly from 12 universities. Others can get in, but usually not straight from school. Sociology majors from a school like, say, Princeton can seamlessly jump from the classroom to the workplace (trust me, I know). Others are left with an education that has neither taught them the job skills they need or carries the not completely unfounded reputation of an Ivy.

I love the co-op idea. Most of the co-op schools in the US are considered 2nd tier, but people I know who have gone to schools like Drexel are doing better than higher priced non co-op schools. In fact, I think it's about much more than social equity. It's also about the substance and value of our very expensive, and increasingly unaffordable, system of higher ed.

On a related topic, unpaid internships are even more prevalent with NGOs, nonprofit, and public policy orgs, including progressive ones. A few very well funded ones do pay, but the vast majority just don’t have the room in the budget. A lot of attention has been focused above to the well-off paying their way into the power elite through these free internships. I’ve seen the same thing happen in the in these sectors (trust me, I went to school in DC, worked unpaid and low paid internships at progressive NGOs, and came straight to NY to make a living in this industry). I’m worried that working students also lose out to well-off students when trying to do something worthwhile. Then we’re facing a real caste system. This has been my experience in the world of internships (being one and hiring several) and entry-level jobs over the past four and a half years.

I’m not so scared about big industries like law and finance. Frankly, if they did rely on free labor, a lot of real talent would defect to jobs that don’t suck so much. That’s why paralegals, entry-levels, and even summer interns are very well compensated. Straight of out school, my paralegal friends in NY easily make 50-80k a year, and investment bankers slightly more.

Lindsay, as long as competition for jobs is what we're talking about, it's zero-sum. Anything extra rich kids get will be lost to poor kids. Partial equalization is the best we can hope for.

Incidentally, to the extent that rich parents give their kids an advantage by insisting that they educate themselves and facilitate education, it's not really an unfair advantage. It's when lazy, mediocre rich kids get a leg up that we should objects.

I think that kids from inferior schools should get an extra year of college without prejudice, since they have to do remedial work. Fast-track kids tend to be judged in part on how fast and efficiently theyget their credits, and this favors kids from elite schools who get earlier starts.

I don't think giving disadvantaged students an extra year will help. First, given that outside the US students routinely get their B.A.s in three years, it's likely that instead, students with sufficiently good backgrounds should be required to graduate in three. Students who go through the IB program or do many AP tests already do that, so it shouldn't be a problem to work with high schools on graduate-in-three-years programs.

Second, the one-year delay in entering the job market might cause big enough a setback to offset the advantage of taking another year. We need a study comparing the effects of graduating a year earlier or a year later, of course controlling for other effects such as that better students tend to finish earlier.

Now, about partial equalization, I think there's a difference between the current internship system and the powerful-parent effect. The mayor can call an employer and ask him to take his chief of staff's daughter as an intern, but few other people can. Under more meritocratic systems the very rich will still be able to slip their children in, as they always can, but the upper middle class won't. So, to pull some figures out of thin air, maybe the top 1% of the population will be able to game the system and the next 50% will be able to compete fairly, whereas now the top 20% can game the system and the rest get scraps.

I think that non-profits that are dedicated to social change have a responsibility to make living wages a priority for their own workers.

If you ensure that only the most privileged people can afford to work for you, you're recapitulating the same kind of disadvantage that you're fighting. Besides which, one might argue that hiring people with diverse backgrounds is even more important when you're trying to come up with bold new ideas for helping disadvantaged people. What percentage of people who write policy papers on how to improve the welfare system have actually been on welfare? I'm not saying that you can only have insight into these matters through personal experience. Far from it. However, progressive organizations should be especially wary about systematically excluding people diverse perspectives.

I think that non-profits that are dedicated to social change have a responsibility to make living wages a priority for their own workers.

Strongly agree. It's also very important to educate those nonprofits' funders about the hidden costs of using free interns. In my experience, funders often push nonprofits to use unpaid or low-wage (temporary, part-time, contract) employees in the name of "efficiency."

Very frustrating, especially when the nonprofit in question is advocating for living-wage jobs.

I know people in their late 40s who've been working in profits all their lives and are finding that their retirement future is very poor. Sometimes the top management of these nonprofits is very, very well paid, too. These top managers will make arguments that they deserve their high pay, but don't realize that they apply to the lower-level workers even more so.

I think this is a misguided argument. Paid internships, in fact, make far more sense than their unpaid counterparts - you get the most competition for the best paying internships, and can thus cherry-pick the most talented interns for your program. That benefit far outweighs the meager cost of not paying minimum wage for 2 months (which I would estimate to be a total expense of around $1,600; $124M/year is a rounding error to many top companies, let alone to the entire sum of US industry). Professions like those in business almost never offer unpaid internships.

Rather, in my experience, companies that offer unpaid internships do so not because they don't want to pay interns but because they can't. As a commenter noted above, many (I would say the majority) of these are offered by non-profits, NGOs, and similar organizations. These aren't lucrative professions, for the most part, and so I'm not convinced that opening them up to more individuals would really have a powerful effect on their futures.

Finally, I would critique the entire premise of this piece: I don't really buy that an unpaid internship is a significant advantage in the majority of professions in terms of the job search. The most advantageous internships are for the most selective firms, which are often paid (in fact, their being paid is often one of the markers of such internships' selectiveness and thus their value in the market). And as someone who has seen quite a bit of recruiting over the past years, I have seen many candidates with perfectly typical summer jobs that have excelled in interviews by highlighting their accomplishments and drive. They were considered just as the others were - even, believe it or not, those with internships. That's because merit is far more valued than people seem to think.

Well, progressive nonprofits have a general funding problem (do conservative nonprofits similarly rely on interns? Or do they just hire bored housewives who're eager to do some grunt anti-choice work?). Now obviously it's important to make sure that any additional money goes not just to the top managers and consultants, but the current level of funding is just too low.

I think there're two very useful ways to develop the point about welfare, Lindsay: stereotyping, and personal experience. In a nutshell, political activists tend to be intellectuals or pseudo-intellectuals imposing their ideas on people they have little understanding of. A significant part of the botching of Vietnam came from that, and although on many issues liberals have made great progress since the 1960s, domestic socioeconomic policy isn't one of them. Of course, this chronic problem has led to even more vicious stereotyping of liberals as rich kids who don't know what the value of a dollar is, so having a more diverse workforce will make liberal NGOs not just design better policies but also look better to the general public.

I really doubt that many people would take unpaid internships if they didn't think that it was a way to get their foot in the door careerwise. I also suspect that they are pretty reasonable in what they think.

(do conservative nonprofits similarly rely on interns?)

Wingnut welfare. Heritage, AEI, Republican party and presidential campaigns, Morton Blackwell's Wingnut Training School.

Remember the tale of all the neocon kiddies who went out to run Bremer's CPA? Simone Ledeen was an AEI 'scholar'; Daniel Ledeen's son was an intern at the New York Sun.

Tim Russert's son was an intern at ESPN; he now co-hosts an XM radio show. He's a sophomore at Boston College.

Lindsey, your last comment was right on the mark.

Jeff said: I don't really buy that an unpaid internship is a significant advantage in the majority of professions in terms of the job search.

Well, it depends on the profession. High-salary fields like banking/finance don't bother with unpaid internships; lefty non-profits, as many have noted above, scoop them up by the handful and use them extensively to keep labor costs down.

Of most concern to me is the liberal-left journalism field. Anya Kamenetz is critiquing a system she herself took advantage of: at the Village Voice, the Nation, Harpers, etc., unpaid interns on summer break from Ivy League schools are the norm.

If you're a recent college grad with no "industry experience" on your resume, good luck competing with the kids whose parents paid for a Manhattan sublet three summers in a row.

Nick S noted above that right-wing foundations pay their young recruits, and pay them pretty well. We can scoff at "wingnut welfare" all we want, but that shit works! Keeping Jonah Goldberg and his ilk well-stocked with Cheetohs in between TV appearances is a strategic victory for the right.

Here's a chicken-and-egg questions for you: Are lefty non-profits ineffective because they're underfunded, or are they underfunded because they're ineffective?

My partner David Johnson at Seeing the Forest has done extensive work on questions of left political funding and the possibilities for left activists who need family jobs (as opposed to working for a few years before "getting serious")

His results have been depressing. Seemingly left foundations and donors are stingy, demand sacrifice on the part of workers, tend to meddle idly in the management of the groups they fund, and disperse their funding over a variety of short-term projects (often feel-good projects) without much strategic political vision.

Those are my judgements and conclusions and not his -- he wouldn't say it exactly that way -- but the work has been discouraging for him.

I had to stop volunteering in admissions outreach for my alma mater, Stanford, to middle- and working-class high school students anymore, because I could no longer in good conscience recommend to these kids taking on $30,000 in loans for access to "connections" that they couldn't afford to take advantage of.

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