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"How Unpaid Internships Perpetuate Rampant Inequality in the US," by Anna Lekas Miller

Recent graduates, disturbed by the dearth of job opportunities, began to take internships as a last resort to stay competitive in the labor market. Although an internship used to be akin to an apprenticeship—a temporary stint of unpaid, hands-on labor resulting in an eventual job offer—the explosion of both college students and recent graduates taking internships no longer guarantees a paid position. Instead, as more and more young people demonstrated they were willing to supply an unpaid labor force so long as it was framed as an “internship,” internships have become a means for companies and non-profit organizations to re-package once paying jobs and cut corners in a tight economy.

Internships are the new entry-level job—the same duties and basic experience, only this time without compensation or benefits.
Unpaid internships were common when I was in college in the early 1980s, but I refused to take one. I had an idea that it was important for me to work for a paycheck. Nevertheless, my parents and I paid for my first career job in three ways: (1) I got a bachelor's degree (my parents paid my tuition); (2) I went to the Denver Publishing Institute summer program (my parents paid my tuition); (3) I took an entry level publishing job that paid $10K a year to start, which didn't cover my expenses (and my expenses didn't include student loans). However, the job did have health benefits.

I see that the long and venerable tradition of paying for entry into a career path continues, although it sounds like it's somewhat worse than it used to be. Another excerpt:
It's becoming more and more expected for college students to have had at least one, if not several, internships by the time they graduate. Students that come from a privileged background, with parents who are willing and able to finance sometimes serial internships, are able to survive in internship culture financially unscathed. Eventually, they intern for long enough to make the connections necessary to break into the white-collar world. But students from lower- or even middle-income backgrounds feel financially stressed taking on unpaid work, but many do anyway to compete with their more privileged peers in the job market.

Date: 12 Oct 2011 01:25 am (UTC)
chaos_by_design: (Default)
From: [personal profile] chaos_by_design
That's pretty awful.

I feel really lucky that I got my first break because I had a work study job where one of the women I worked for liked my work enough to hire me after I graduated. Everyone needs their break, and not everyone has bootstraps to pull themselves up by (that's kind of the nature of needing that first break).

Date: 12 Oct 2011 06:40 am (UTC)
evilawyer: young black-tailed prairie dog at SF Zoo (Default)
From: [personal profile] evilawyer
Unpaid internships were around years back when I was in college, but it didn't seem like the "employers" viewed the interns in the same way they viewed "real" workers in that they weren't worked into the productivity and income forecast projections the way they are now. They were viewed more as students who were there to watch how things were done (and to do little support tasks that weren't particularly critical to organizational functioning. Interns in those days were helpful to have around, from the employers perspective, but they weren't going to be making money (or, in the case of non-profits, working as a full-fledged, pull-your-weight worker) for the company as interns. I've talked to a few recent-ish college grads who've held down internships while looking for jobs, and that doesn't seem to be the case anymore. They're looked at and factored into company strategy as though they were paid employees, or so it seems to me.

Date: 12 Oct 2011 02:21 pm (UTC)
maize: (Default)
From: [personal profile] maize
I friend of mine graduated quite some time ago and worked a long series of unpaid internships. By long series, I mean, many, many, many years. None had any opportunity to turn into a paid position. Eventually, she started getting paying positions, but by "paying," they required extremely extended hours and didn't pay anywhere even remotely near a living wage. She eventually went back to school for a Masters, hoping that would make a difference, and for quite a while it didn't seem to at all, and most of the positions available to her were still unpaid internships. She's finally gotten a paying position that pays something like a reasonable-but-not-great wage. It's taken her... maybe ten or twelve years to get to that point. It's been really depressing to see. She does come from a privileged background, and has been (and still is) living with her parents to facilitate a lot of this. She also has a mountain of debt, including student loans that are more or less never going to be repaid the way things are going at the moment, but also including just creative uses of credit cards and such when she would have to do things like pay for transit or gas or car repairs (or a car) to get to and from jobs that didn't pay anything. I get that she's in an industry that's worse for this than others, but still, it was pretty alarming to see, especially for someone like me, who basically walked out of school and into a decently-paying job.

Date: 12 Oct 2011 02:23 pm (UTC)
maize: (Default)
From: [personal profile] maize
(Another friend recently posted an unpaid internship just amongst her friends and got no takers, then posted a bitter message later about how people's "true colours" came out with that request, because nobody took her up on it. Note that most of the people she was proposing it to were people who were working in full-time paid positions, many with kids and so on. There is a real sense of entitlement about it among some people in the hiring departments. I've also had the same or other people suggest to me when I've been busy at work that I should get an intern, and when I've told them that I don't have the budget for that, they looked at me as if I had three heads and the idea of actually paying someone was ludicrous. I don't think I'd be comfortable making someone work for me for free.)

Date: 13 Oct 2011 02:12 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] gmdreia
Schools should be preparing students for reality - but it doesn't matter, because at 18, only your DREEEEAMZ matter and you don't listen for dick (was there myself). And many of these jobs are not hiring paid employees because there just is not a lot of work in those jobs to begin with. Which indicates a poor occupational outlook. Federal student aid and federal student loans should not cover fields with poor occupational outlooks without the students completing some sort of job skills or career path workshop.

Despite ageism, for once, I notice in school that people in my age group are actually doing better than the traditional age people. The older students (30s and 40s; older but still employable) seem to actually be working in the fields they went back to take degrees in. A few joined my program to retrain or enhance their skills but ended up leaving because of decent job offers. THIS YEAR.

I would tell a young person to do what my working-class-origins mother always drilled into me: ALWAYS have a trade you can fall back on. Spend a year certifying in something that translates to a Real Job(tm) before going to college. Don't let yourself get to college without already having real world experience. It's just as possible to work one's way into a more ideal job as a paid mail clerk than as an unpaid intern.
From: [identity profile]
Something that a lot of college students don't know, too, is that it's necessary to start getting work experience before even leaving college, and also to market one's self. I think that many college graduates expect that a job will just be waiting for them. Many don't realize that the unpaid work and networking can and should be done while still in school, and this is especially possible in fields that don't require legal certifications (for example, graphic design; one can build their portfolio and network long before they even graduate). Even fields that -do- require certification (for example, nursing and law) often have some lower level certification (such as CNA and paralegal) that can help them work and network in the field before they graduate. That's much smarter than going to work for Starbuck's while in college. You'd be amazed how many of these people never work in their field and then they invest so much money and end up so totally clueless about what the work is like let alone how to get a job, when the paralegal who worked his way through law school already knows people and has some clue of what he is about.

It should be necessary to complete career path workshops and the like as a condition of having a student loan.

Both the public universities and the higher-end liberal arts privates (as opposed to ones that are career-focused) suck in this regard.
Edited Date: 12 Oct 2011 02:15 am (UTC)

Date: 12 Oct 2011 05:55 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
In France very low-paid stages are common. For engineers, typically the one between their first and second years is a stage ouvrier which for a current student has recently involved sluicing out boats in Nice harbour. However, I managed to wangle my way out of that (having had a gap year in which I'd spent 13 weeks doing apprentice training on lathes, grinders, milling machines, soldering etc. and 13 weeks working on the shop-floor re-designing stuff, writing documentation, and trying to get the place up to ISO 9000 specification) and got three research-y (not well-paid, but enough to pay the rent and to do plenty of sightseeing if I was willing to walk most places, which in Paris isn't difficult) stages instead, which I will never regret as they have been the only office jobs I've ever had that haven't had me wanting to tear my hair out within weeks. The working environment is just so much better than in England (or at least it was then).

The culture of unpaid internships has now hit the UK in many fields, as well of course as the long-term unemployed being forced to work for free. There's a reason I left the UK ... and politics had a lot to do with it. Now I live in an anomalously right-wing/centrist town in a hugely radically left-wing (US politicians would say communist, but the Parti Communist is something else entirely) and fiercely nationalistic (being a frequently invaded small island does that to places, I find) area. When I try to talk about the social problems there are in the UK, people think I'm making them up (the streets here are not, frex, littered with seriously damaged homeless veterans from two certain mad wars, so it's hard for them to imagine what it would be like to live in such a place).

For all I'm having a bit of trouble settling in and making friends, I know in the long run this is a better place to be .... (and making friends isn't something that just happens overnight anyway; acquaintances, maybe, but friends are a long-term investment!)

Sorry for tangential ramble; am waiting for painkillers to kick in so can go back to sleep, but thought maybe a weird lefty European (and I think I am now weird lefty even by European standards) comment might be interesting.
Edited Date: 12 Oct 2011 05:57 am (UTC)

Date: 12 Oct 2011 04:37 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I was very grateful that Apple had a policy against unpaid internships and I got one of their three library internships when I was getting out of library school. I hadn't thought about the social inequality aspect.

I worked my way though undergrad originally and happily managed to get jobs related to my field even if they didn't pay much. Of course that was back before internships where fashionable. I don't think I heard the term (outside of medicine) until going back to grad school in the late 80s.

Thanks for sharing the article.

Not our parents' college experience

Date: 13 Oct 2011 05:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
The big problem, to my way of thinking, about doing the internships and the job training and the self-marketing during college is that it means you pretty much have to decide your initial career direction within a year or so of leaving high school. I know it's a privileged outlook to think that a big part of college should be figuring out what you want to do, with vocational training secondary, but it's a privilege I think society should change to afford to everyone, rather than binding people into their roles at an ever-earlier stage.


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