Monday, February 24, 2014


I've written again about unpaid internships. The point I was most eager to make was about the transformation of the "arts" job. It used to be that starving artists were artists, whereas now, any office work that's remotely "arts" is unpaid. No one is forced to buy your novel or painting. But if you're doing administrative work that has some tangential relationship to art, you're still doing tasks you wouldn't otherwise, for an entity other than yourself, and that's work in the usual sense. Yet we've normalized the idea that any "arts" job is a dream job that need not pay. This is particularly frustrating for artists, whose connections and interests - and thus plausible day jobs - will be in the arts-broadly-defined.

But the point that probably most needed making was that "prepared" is subjective, and changes according to the supply of applicants with unpaid experience. Consider this comment to the piece:

I think it depends on the industry. In my profession, experience is everything. Every intern I have seen at our office would be woefully inadequate as either an entry level Legal Secretary or a Paralegal. I don't think we would ever hire anyone who hadn't interned somewhere and at least had not only the school background but some experience as well.
This commenter unfortunately doesn't spell out where the purported inadequacies lie. Is it that these are silly youth who show up late or in flip-flops, and who continue to do so even once advised against? Or is it that they've never worked at a law firm before (I'd think graduates who'd never worked at all would be unusual!) and thus require some on-the-job training? I suspect the latter.

If there weren't applicants with internship experience - if internships weren't a thing - surely this firm would hire people without that experience, would show them how to merge spreadsheets or whatever the issue is, and would, as they say, deal. That's how it went when I worked in an office before grad school, back in 2005-2006, when a college degree sufficed.* I mean, which is more likely - that something has radically changed in the skills required of legal secretaries, or that employers now have the option of hiring entry-level applicants who've already done what used to be entry-level jobs, for free?

*There's one line of thought - which I've addressed before - that says, the problem isn't unpaid internships, but rather the insistence on higher education. This might make sense - and not just be changing the topic to an also-important but separate issue - if unpaid internships weren't virtually always in conjunction with higher education. Sometimes you're even paying tuition to complete the internship. If there were some unpaid-internship track, with actual training, this would be a potentially worthwhile conversation. Instead, it's that you go to college and find that the unpaid internships you did as a student qualify you for unpaid postgraduate internships.


caryatis said...

An article with numbers in the headline! I can't wait to see you on Cracked.

I guess I've bugged you about this before, but it's a two-way problem. Some of the unpaid interns are rich, but others are voluntarily taking unpaid positions and paying for them via dependence on others or taking out debt. If more of those people were to refuse to do so--whether that means working at a less-trendy pizza place or maybe choosing in a less artsy field--the problem would go away (or perhaps be confined to those industries which can realistically recruit only from the rich).

At my law school, many people take unpaid internships the first summer. You can choose to take a public-interest internship, for which the school will give you free money, or a judicial internship, for which the school won't, on the assumption that people who take those internships are the ones with good grades who will end up with clerkships and ultimately higher incomes in 3-5 years. But I can't see how that helps now.

Phoebe said...

OK, so I'm not following the beginning of your comment re: numbers and "Cracked," whatever that is, so, moving on...

I agree that unpaid internships are taken by lots of people who aren't independently wealthy - after all, very few people are independently wealthy, and yet, so many unpaid internships. This is a point that should be made more often, and that Ross Perlin makes quite well, with lots of research, in his book about internships, but that's mostly ignored. Far too often, the conversation ends up being about what a shame it is that only rich people have the wonderful opportunity to work for free. When really, no one should be doing so, yet lots of not-particularly-rich people are.

But I think it's wrong to blame the people who take them, who are, as a rule, doing so because they believe (correctly or not) that this will increase their employability in the paid workforce. I mean, look at what it's come to - are we really going to blame people for choosing the wrong pizzeria, the wrong office? If you're working in any pizzeria, any office, that's a job. These are not glamorous dreams, but attempts at earning a living.

And there isn't always an obvious paying alternative, particularly as these internships proliferate, and move into ever-less-glamorous spheres. So you can be all noble and avoid the art gallery, only to find the alternative is being the unpaid intern of that Russian-Albanian Craigslist accountant.

Anonymous said...

As a person who hires (for $) several undergrads per year to work part-time in our university department, I can attest to the fact that (some/many) undergrads are woefully unprepared for a basic office job. I don't just mean that someone would have to teach them to merge spreadsheets or whatever; I mean that they are utterly unaccustomed to being responsible for tasks, managing their time, and communicating in a professional manner. My student jobs involve lots of research and writing, and some communication with non-university entities like companies, so I screen out applicants with poor grammar, cover emails written in text-speak, or who have obviously not read the job description - this initial screening takes out 80-90% of applicants, including seniors nearing graduation. There's still a steep learning curve for the remaining applicants, but at least it's spent learning actual new job-related skills.

So, I'm guessing that at least part of reason unpaid internships exist is to provide a way for students and recent grads to learn the basic workplace skills that aren't being effectively taught at the high school or undergrad level. Honestly, I'm not sure how else some of these young folks who are academically successful (or relatively so) but don't have the first clue how to act in a business environment would become even marginally employable. As a university department, hiring students is part of our process, but I can't imagine there are many for-profit companies willing to invest cash in this kind of remedial workplace education.

Phoebe said...


If these are students in good standing, i.e. not failing out, presumably they show up for class and turn in assignments. I've taught many reasonably representative undergrads, and the average student was always reasonably competent in these areas. Time management and responsibility, no?

And I'd think by 20-21, the sort of kids who are doing OK in college, but who are seeking work while students, would have had some kind of work before, if not in an office. Perhaps I'm naive, or missing something obvious, but I'm having trouble picturing what these skills would be.

Unpaid internships seem like a terrible way of teaching whichever hard-to-pin-down workplace-specific (i.e. not taught in school) skills. The specificity of work is that you do tasks whether or not they interest or educate you. With an unpaid internship, there's the rule that the experience is educational, so an intern is actually right to complain if asked to do menial tasks, whereas a low-paid entry-level worker would have to suck it up. Meanwhile, the whole fundamental workplace experience of doing things because if you don't, you're not paid, is of course lost.

caryatis said...

I guess where I'm coming from here is that people have a duty to support themselves. To the best of their ability. Is there always an *obvious* paying job? Hell no. Are there still real jobs out there for recent humanities graduates? Yes. A responsible person will avoid the internship that would keep her living with her parents in favor of searching a little longer for a real job. (And maybe moving out of New York.)

And yes, part of the solution is to correct the misconceptions people have about the value of internships.

Phoebe said...


Unpaid internships are all over the place, not just in New York (or else what's a Northern KY paper doing writing about them?). There are plenty such ads where I live, which is I'm quite sure not a part of NY, and in reading about them/Googling around for various purposes, I've found plenty further still from that city. Meanwhile it's often quite a bit easier to find *paid* work in a big city.

More broadly, I can't emphasize enough that the unpaid internship as "glamor job" is a tremendous misconception. It's rarely that someone chooses glamor (field or locale) over being an upstanding self-supporting adult. More often, it's that internships have come to seem like a normal and even necessary route to getting a job, and are taken precisely in order to assure self-sufficiency long-term.

It's like this: The internship may be chosen over the (non-trendy) pizzeria not because it's such great fun to do an internship, but because it seems a better investment. It may well be no such thing (esp. if it's an internship at a different pizzeria!), but this is how it's presented. It's an approach we already accept from higher ed (law school, too, means forgoing a salary for X years, as I understand it), and have far too readily accepted in the realm of pseudo-jobs which, unlike school, don't transfer to anything particular. I really wouldn't blame the victim here, which is what blaming unpaid interns is in most cases.

And finally, I don't know when you graduated, but my sense is that this has really changed in the last decade or so. In 2005, when I did, absolutely there were regular jobs, although there were some unpaid "opportunities" as well. It was important to me (as well as... necessary) to be paid, so I applied all over and got a job that paid. These days, the same sort of jobs are often unpaid. There's a whole unpaid entry-level that didn't used to exist.

caryatis said...

I agree there's a lack of information. Just as the fact that law school is not always a good investment has been publicized more and more, the fact that unpaid internships don't guarantee real work should be. So, good job with that article.

Sure, some unpaid interns are just trying to make a non-glamorous living, but if they took seriously the obligation to support themselves, they would do some research before jumping in to an internship. Of course it's not (only) an individual character failure--the importance of the crash has been exaggerated, so a lot of recent graduates underestimate the entry-level jobs out there, as I think you do.

I did get a well-paying entry-level job after the crash (2009), with a college degree but essentially no skills.

caryatis said...

Incidentally, I thought this was an interesting tidbit which seems to back up the theory that lack of trust for the other sex is one reason late marriage and resultant premarital childbearing is so common for poor women--this woman didn't get married until 33, in part because she suspected that any man who wanted to marry earlier would exploit her.

"I was wary of men who didn’t want to complete all of their education or establish themselves financially before marriage."

Anonymous said...

Phoebe - I'd agree that unpaid internships aren't the right way to teach those basic work skills. The point I was trying to make is that schools (high schools and universities) seem to be failing to teach them to a large chunk of students, and ought to do a better job of making sure students are prepared on a fundamental level for the demands of a workplace.

Most of the students I've hired in our department either have no work experience, or have only worked customer service-type jobs. So most of their responsibility and time-management skills have been developed in a context where professors are providing very, very specific guidelines for what procedures to follow and what the end product should look like. Additionally, most of their large assignments are turned in in draft form first, so they often don't know how to review their own work for accuracy, grammar, etc. before sending it to their boss (me) for review. Virtually every single student I've hired had a large learning curve related to this type of basic review skill, as well as trouble learning to trouble-shoot their own projects (or at least trying before asking for help).