Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"[O]pportunities to work for free"

Matthew Yglesias has been defending unpaid internships with a lesser-evil argument: they're better than pricey grad school. Specifically, Columbia's journalism grad program, which doesn't come cheap.

I know a bit about about NYU's journalism grad program, which doubtless also doesn't come cheap (although there are scholarships, as there probably are at Columbia), because my own program overlaps with theirs. (French Studies, in its various permutations.) And... journalism grad students also do unpaid internships. Quite possibly the for-course-credit kind.

And this is how it tends to work. Unpaid internships don't replace the need for extra education. Finding them in the first place - getting an in, figuring out which are legit, even knowing to look for them - often requires that you be a student. Maybe in an ideal world (more on that in a moment) an apprenticeship system would make it easier to go less-credentialed, but that's not what happens.

But would this be such an ideal world? School is not work, and paying to go to school is different in several ways from paying to go to work. (Which is what working for free means, all the more so if "free" is happening in a city like New York. Grad school with a stipend that allows you to break even at best might count as "free.")

1) If you pay to work, you're paying to increase a company's profits. Your work, then, however much it may incidentally benefit you (the much-vaunted learning experience), is selected according to what the company needs. Whereas if you pay to go to school, a) the company you're paying is (FWIW) a non-profit, and b) the work you're doing has been chosen according to how much it will benefit you.

2) Degrees are transferrable in a way that work experience is not. That's one reason work needs to pay - because all you take from a given stint might well be the pay. Once you have "MA" affixed to your name, this... may count against you at the Starbucks you're applying to work at, may be in a not-so-lucrative subject area, etc., etc., but it's there. Whereas a line on your resume might mean absolutely nothing more than that you filled your time. I say "filled your time" and not "were employed" because my understanding of this is that time spent unpaid-interning is not necessarily (not usually?) considered time spent employed.

3) If work doesn't always pay, if that isn't just what work is, who's to say when it does pay? After how many weeks, months, years of a position does it begin to offer a paycheck? After how many weeks, months, years in an industry can a "worker" start demanding compensation? Not to get all "Girls" on you, but it's clear enough where this can lead. You can work somewhere for free for ages, but if you're starting from zero pay, negotiating up to even minimum wage can seem a lost cause. It becomes that a worker who demands pay is entitled. It becomes something above-and-beyond to expect from one's employer. (And who's likely not to want to make a fuss? Women. Also those of both sexes not raised to expect to triumph professionally.)


Andrew Stevens said...

I'm sure it's different in other fields, but in the fields I've worked in, I've never seen an intern who wasn't a big money-loser, irrespective of any pay they received. (I admit that in those areas I have experience with, interns are not only paid, but grossly overpaid - usually paid the same rate as a new employee in the position they're interning for would be.) Even the best interns I've ever seen consumed much more value in the time of the employees who trained them than they produced, or possibly could have produced.

So why hire interns at all? Two reasons: A) recruitment (if they're good and get hired full-time, after three to six months, they might start earning their salary) and B) leadership opportunities for lower level employees.

I am talking about primarily highly technical fields here. It's possible journalism interns can create value as soon as they walk in the door, but I had always assumed that in most fields the actual work of the interns is a deadweight loss, unless the job is quite easy.

Phoebe said...

I've addressed this before elsewhere, but will assume that even devoted WWPD readers aren't actually living in my brain, so:

What matters is whether the work interns do is for the company or for their own learning. New, esp. entry-level employees will always require training. That's why hiring is a risk. Why companies try to make sure new hires will be a good investment once trained - will be good at the job and will stick around, at least in the industry.

If interns are of less value than ordinary entry-level employees, it's for a couple reasons. One is that many part-time (full-time student?) workers may take the place of a regular employee. This is of course less efficient in terms of training, but doesn't tell you anything about the individual interns' capacity.

The other is that interns are often barely-paid, unpaid, or at any rate precarious employees with very short contracts, no guarantee of future indefinite employment, not much in the way of health insurance. Working only/mostly for the vague promise of industry connections is bound to have an impact on productivity.

Andrew Stevens said...

To the extent that I was critiquing your argument at all, it was primarily the "companies are getting value out of their interns for nothing" argument. I don't believe this is likely to be true. It's not that interns are less valuable than ordinary entry-level employees, it's that both are worth less than nothing until trained. They literally are a drain on resources. The intern, usually being on a fixed term short-term contract, has no hope of paying back the training investment while hopefully the full-time entry level employee will.

I believe some more precarious industries transitioned to unpaid internships simply to stem some of the bleeding from internships. They still lose money on the intern, but not as much as when they were paying them as well. I assume that if unpaid internships were made illegal, those industries wouldn't have any internships at all, not that they'd be paid again. I really don't know though, since my experience is with industries which pay interns (and probably have to in order to be competitive).

Phoebe said...


I think what you're missing is the part about one normal entry-level job now being split over several interns. If internships had to be paid properly/have benefits, there wouldn't be six paid entry-level workers, but just the one.

Andrew Stevens said...

Oh, I see what you're talking about. Those internships are already illegal so lawsuits ought to be successful against those. I imagine those come up in fields where it is common to need both skilled employees and other unskilled employees to do menial labor. (The film industry for example which needs both highly skilled creative types and people around the set to fetch and carry sets and props or do admin work.) So you dangle "experience" for the skilled position in front of the intern and then get them to actually do the menial labor (which is probably below the pay grade of even an entry level employee of the skilled type). Probably just my good fortune that I've never worked in a field that would even consider such practices.

Phoebe said...

I'm thinking of fields where the (unpaid) intern needs to arrive with past internship experience and impressive computer skills, but also of ones where what's needed for entry-level work is basic office competence, an ability to show up, etc. So much of the discussion of internships pretends that back before they existed, the only workers who were compensated had really specialized skills. When in fact, the need for secretaries hasn't disappeared, nor have secretaries, but these tasks can now be relabeled something that sounds highbrow and pays zilch.