Friday, August 03, 2012

Work-like experience

Disclaimer: This post is inspired by recent controversies in the UK, but is mostly about the States. Not a new topic here at WWPD, but a new take, I promise.


The argument we tend to hear for why it's OK to hire interns for no pay is that the work done by these quasi-employees is of no value to the company. A candidate without sufficient experience will need to be trained for the job. This much sounds, on the face of it, reasonable. Why would a company pay someone who's never done this job before, and might not know exactly how to do it? (Never mind that that's how hiring normally works - rarely has someone had the exact same job before - but set that aside for the moment.) It's a foot in the door. A chance to make connections, to experience an office environment. All of this implies a fresh-faced youth, one who will be shocked to learn of such things as water coolers and business casual, and who, after some finite intermediary period, will move onto a real job.

But companies like not paying workers. And they've caught onto the fact that "sufficient experience" is subjective. Prior internship experience in no way guarantees that one's next internship - for which the first internship was an ostensible prerequisite - will pay. One is expected to arrive not only with one's own source of income (be that wealthy parents, student loans, bar-tending jobs), but also with one's own training. Unpaid-internship ads will demand knowledge of not-so-basic computer skills, say, or published clips. It might make sense that certain internships wouldn't pay if the point was that liberal-arts colleges aren't teaching whichever real-world skills, and these beleaguered companies need to turn Young People Today into viable workers. But if the internships expect you to arrive with those skills, this argument falls flat. If you had to qualify for the internship, above and beyond being a nice, upstanding college student or grad, that's where things get dicey.

Once it's established that a period of unpaid on-the-job training is acceptable, and that "untrained" is relative, what constitutes "untrained" will just keep expanding. As will the length of time, as will the number of apprenticeships. People who are unambiguously professionals in whichever field - on the more junior end of the spectrum, sure, but not just getting their feet wet - will nevertheless need to wait longer and longer to reach a point at which it's assumed they'll be paid for their efforts.

Our next assumption will be that this only happens in dying or charitable professions, in ones where there's no money to begin with. Sure, maybe you're contributing as an unpaid intern, but the funding situation allows only work experience as payment. A company might say something like, "Unfortunately, our budget doesn't allow us to pay our interns." (They tend to say this.) Which reinforces this idea. They would pay if they could, right? (Never mind that the higher-ups presumably do earn something.)

What we miss is that the availability of will-work-for-free candidates actually changes the market value of lower-level labor. As in, maybe it used to cost a company $8/hr to have someone stuff envelopes, but now there are people willing to do it for free, making this labor cost the company $0/hr. Why do employers usually pay? Typically because that's the only way to get random people to come do stuff for you. I mean, it's not this exactly - a company, as I understand it, looks at the value added by the labor, as well as the pay necessary to get someone to do it. But if a company realizes that labor bringing in $500/hr is labor they can get for free, why not? So's circular - the job merits nothing, not because it produces nothing, but because of the qualified workers willing to do it for nothing. This figure may be a bit of an exaggeration, but the point is that we can't assume that because an intern isn't being paid, there isn't money in the budget to pay this person, or that this person isn't adding value to the company.

And so the bar gets higher and higher for what constitutes skilled or experienced labor. Someone with however many degrees and past relevant internships might remain a trainee, not yet quite at the level of being worthy of a real, grown-up paycheck, but be patient! This will be dispiriting, because it will seem to indicate that one is not yet capable enough to provide value to a company, or that one is in a field that simply has no value in this day and age. When in fact it may just mean that organizations realize they can be more profitable without paying a cent, given all the talented workers who'll work diligently for free.

Perhaps so, goes the last remaining counterargument, but we've all got to do what we've got to do. If you want a job, you have to play by the rules of your times, not by those of bygone eras. The problem with that argument is that unpaid internships don't even help in finding you a job. (Yet so many insist they do. It would be interesting to see how much is correlation vs. causation. As in, if connections got you the unpaid internship, or if wealth and upper-class manners got you there, who's to say this wouldn't have been enough regardless? Or, why wouldn't a declared interest in Field X from an early age correlate with ending up in that field?)

I don't at all blame the individuals who work within the system. Young people are told that it's entitled to expect to be paid for your work (but somehow not entitled to be 24 and asking for money from your parents), and that in times like these, anything that prevents gaps on the resume and gets you out of the house is for the best. And the second reason makes sense, although it does apply more to grads than current students. All that can be done is, laws restricting unpaid labor can be enforced; awareness can be raised about the economic futility of this activity; and individuals with a choice between a fancier-sounding unpaid internship and less-glamorous-sounding paid work (internship or otherwise) can be nudged ever-so-gently towards the latter.


caryatis said...

When people are hired at my company, they're given two to four weeks of unpaid training (more or less depending on aptitude) and then start doing the job unaided (and getting paid.) I was recently surprised to see ads for a school offering a training course for my job for $1000. I suppose the company could save money by scrapping the on-the-job training, which costs it the time of experienced employees, and asking potential employees to go to this school and pay the $1000 tuition themselves. Fortunately, since the company already has trouble recruiting enough people, it would never happen. On-the-job training seems like a better way to tailor your skills to the specific requirements of each company anyway.

This relates to the problem with unpaid internships: it's all about the size of the labor pool. If you were having a really hard time recruiting interns for your fashion magazine or whatever, you'd have to start paying them, but there are just too many people who want that internship, so potential employees have little power.

Britta said...

Karl Marx has a very excellent section on surplus population and the reserve army of workers in Capital (ch. 25), making roughly the same points: surplus population of potential workers is an integral part of capitalism and allows employers to keep wages down and extract more work from fewer workers (exacerbating the exploitation.) I'm sure he would never have imagined unpaid internships, but they're a logical progression of his argument. Also, note, corporate profits are soaring, while number of workers being hired is heading in the opposite direction.

Phoebe said...


Unpaid training sounds better than a potentially endless cycle of unpaid internships, but it does pose some problems. I'm wondering how a company (not necessarily yours in particular) gets around paying at least minimum wage to new hires. Also what happens if someone "works" for such a company unpaid for three weeks and is then let go. Paying some school for the same training might actually pose less of an ethical dilemma, because there, there's no specific job promised at the end of it, and thus less potential for deception. I mean, I get that the not-yet-trained will never be worth as much to a company as the already-trained, but this is always the case, yet jobs typically do pay workers for the initial period when they're learning the ropes, with the expectation that they'll benefit from trained workers later on, either b/c these people stay put, or b/c they at least stay put in the field, if people are moving around between companies once already trained.


Thanks for the Marx tip. I think you're right to point out the connection between lowered wages and no wages. But there seems to me to be a fundamental difference between unpaid work and work that simply isn't paid enough (below a living or minimum wage). With very low paid workers, we assume exploitation (busboys, fruit-pickers, etc.). With unpaid ones, privilege.

The conversation about unpaid internships is always about how unfortunate it is that not everybody has equal access to them, as if working for free with no promise of paid work later is this wonderful thing. When it's like, yes, life is easier for rich kids than poor ones, but access to unpaid dead-end work is hardly the "perk" we should highlight.

It's clear enough how we got to this point. If you're 18-30-ish and ambitious, it's no longer odd for you to be financially dependent - on loans, parents. On their parents' health insurance. As long as you're at that "student" life stage, all of your pursuits might be labeled "learning experiences." All the more so if an internship is "for college credit." Places hiring the relatively-young are in a position to assume that their workers are already taken care of, even though that's of course not always or even usually going to be the case.

But working is different from being a student. A student is not benefitting a company. A worker is. Just because you're at a point in your life when some of your time can be devoted to self-improvement doesn't mean that during the x hours a week you are contributing to a company, you need not get paid.

"Also, note, corporate profits are soaring, while number of workers being hired is heading in the opposite direction."

Well put. When unpaid internships are at plausibly struggling entities, or charities where one might plausibly imagine that the minimum wage a middle-class 19-year-old could be earning is better-spent on the needy, this isn't so straightforward. But unpaid internships aren't just at such places.

Noelle said...

I never thought that my first WWPD comment would involve comic strips, but there's a semi-relevant Dilbert today.

Phoebe said...


A fine first WWPD comment! Relevant to the post, for starters.

The comic gets it right, but is, like you say, semi-relevant. It's about the bad economy forcing workers to accept unpaid labor, but not about the likelihood that the company benefits from this labor. Nor is there any hint that maybe the economy isn't it at all, at least not in the sense we imagine of companies not being able to afford to hire, and this company totally could pay this guy, but with so many willing to work for free, it won't.