As promised, below is the letter I emailed off to the Times, in response to what was about the most absurd defense of unpaid internships one could imagine:
Ilene Starger is correct that "[n]o task required to keep a business running [...] should be considered menial," and that every organization "depends on elbow grease, small details and often 'boring' tasks to keep it functional and thriving." Starger uses this to justify unpaid internships, when it does precisely the opposite. If an intern is performing tasks a company "depends on," then the intern is owed compensation. The question is not, as Starger implies, whether entry-level employees ought to do grunt work, or whether there is any value to on-the-job, outside-the-classroom learning. It is whether entry-level workers must be paid.Happily, a similar point is addressed in some of the letters they did publish. If others were more articulate, all the better.
Starger's original letter, reprinted in the linked letters page, was incredibly sneaky. It gave the impression that the unpaid-internship debate is over whether young people fresh out of college should have to do low-level tasks, as if the issue was that Kids These Days are so entitled, and think they ought to be given CEO salaries and Anna Wintour responsibilities their first week on the job. When the issue is most definitely not whether those at the bottom of the totem pole should suck it up - there's absolutely no debate on this, absolutely no one arguing the reverse - but whether or not 25-year-olds should have their rent paid by their parents, or suffer for not having/opting to use that option.
One letter-writer, Lillian Marsano, takes the bait, misses the point:
I was in a senior hiring position for many years and was occasionally confronted with very naïve [note: anti-naiveté, a running theme] and — yes — demanding young people who seemed to believe that their “superior” college backgrounds should elevate them to inner decision-making circles. I couldn’t agree more with Ms. Starger, especially her comments that “no task required to keep a business running ...should be considered menial.”
For those who feel exploited, I would say: What makes you think you should be doing the work of someone who has invested much more time and effort in learning the business? An internship is a tremendous opportunity to work and be tested in a real office environment. Those with flexibility and talent know that a career takes time, effort and dedication to the smallest details. It also doesn’t hurt to show a little humility.Yes, yes, young people are the absolute worst, but what about the little detail of compensation? "Humility" is a nice on-the-job (and off-the-job) quality, but this "boss" you're groveling before needs to hold up her own end of the deal, namely $$$ (or, more to the point, $). I mean, sure, maybe Marsano had to deal with some unpleasant recent college grads. But the exploitation we're discussing here is what workers feel who aren't paid.
More specifically, these are young adults who've been told that the reason they're not being paid is that this is not a job but an educational experience. It's one thing to clean the toilet at your paid job, because it's just one task that needed to be done at your place of work, and you're not the boss, so get to it. (I speak from personal, and not even ostensibly janitorial, experience.) It's another altogether to be ordered to do so by someone who's not even paying you a cent. And yes, I suppose it would be extra annoying if you were taking out loans to pay an elite college in exchange for "credits," and were in fact paying for the opportunity to clean that toilet. All on the remote off-chance that you will so charm them with your plunger skills that they write you a really enthusiastic letter of recommendation for when you apply to clean the toilets of someone else in the glamorous field you wish to enter.
Put otherwise: young people who'd put up with crap literally or figuratively at an actual job may well make a fuss if they're not actual employees. The unpaid internship system is as good as designed to make young people seem entitled, because it's utterly reasonable to feel entitled to an educational experience if that was what was promised. Conversely, someone who expected a warm-and-fuzzy educational experience from a regular entry-level job could rightly be called out for being entitled. But it's also less likely to happen in the first place, because when you're depending on a job for money, you intuitively know to suck it up.
The reason unpaid internships don't make sense - separate from the myriad reasons they're unethical - is that the Builds Character skill one learns on the job very much depends on a dynamic created by the employee depending on that job for money. You put up with whatever your boss demands, within reason or not, in part to advance your career, perhaps, but also because that's where your money comes from. Removing that element creates this fiction that every mundane thing you're asked to do isn't for the benefit of the company, but for the building of your character, your ability to function in an office environment. When of course if an internship is of a stuffing-envelopes variety, when - and this was what was so outrageous about Starger's letter - a company refers to 'needing' to hire an intern, the organization benefits. (Note the continued sneakiness in Starger's response to these letters: "Most interns do not take the place of salaried workers; they augment staff." Sneaky, because the issue isn't that someone working unpaid 10 hours a week in an entry-level capacity ought to make $30k for that labor. It's that for the time they are there and the work they are doing, if the company benefits, pay up.)
While some internships, I've heard, take the 'educational' angle seriously, it's now acceptable for 'educational' to mean that you - Starger again - "learn how to write a business letter, how to file and organize and how to interact with associates." What, then, is the incentive for businesses to ask of interns anything above and beyond whatever tasks need to get done? Any job that teaches you, 'this is how it goes in the real world, kid,' can now not pay. Which is preposterous, because what can be more 'real world' than depending, financially, on the subjective desires of your employer?