Opinion | Op-eds

Internship culture doesn't pay off

Last week’s lead story in The Eye by Zack Etheart (“The end of the internship,” Sept. 19) set out to explain, “how a culture of unpaid labor is finally paying off.” Though the article followed several current students and recent grads who landed jobs before their graduation, what it missed while chronicling these isolated personal success stories is a larger perspective of the exploitative unpaid internship system as a whole. By highlighting the stories of a self-identified “lucky” few, the article endorses an unjust status quo—making it that much more difficult to break out of the cycle for the majority of unlucky students whose unpaid work and sacrifices doesn’t pay off.

The status quo is made clear: “Having five to six internships on your résumé is the baseline prerequisite to being considered” for work in creative industries. While the article focuses mainly on writing and editing jobs, the problem of expected, serial internships affects many other fields and the students interested in working in them. Yet this requirement of working multiple internships for free is based on the assumption that students have the money in the first place to be able to volunteer their labor without compensation.

Etheart briefly mentions this critique only to brush it aside without either discussion or justification. Offering that students who are employed while still taking classes have more money to support themselves or won’t have to work for free after graduation doesn’t explain how students without money should go about funding unpaid opportunities. He casually mentioned Center for Career Education grants are certainly an option. For plenty of students who don’t qualify for grants for one reason or another, unpaid internships are either out of the question or must be funded through other, paid jobs—the same “work-study job somewhere in Lerner” that Etheart off-handedly seems to relegate to those too lazy (read: often too poor) to work for free.

This falsely meritocratic language is another pillar supporting the unjust system. By writing off students as “lethargic” who are unable to intern for free or whose unpaid work doesn’t lead to paid employment, we become the problem in the stead of an economy that expects us to work without compensation. Those whose “effort panned out,” and who “made time for more work, and less play,” become those worthy of a salary. And students who aren’t as lucky become those who didn’t work hard enough to deserve employment. Blame falls on the students shut out of a system of privilege when it should fall on the system itself.

None of this is to say that the students in the article shouldn’t be commended for their hard work and initiative. They should, and it’s not their fault they happened to benefit from a system, just as it’s not the fault of the majority who don’t benefit. But even success stories can be looked at critically. If it’s true we’ve been conditioned to accept that “if one job offer comes your way, take it, no questions asked,” than even when paid, we’re still exploited. We should be empowered to evaluate jobs with poor benefits, little—if any—means for upward mobility, or menial and less demanding work than what we’ve done in school or for free. The fact that we’re too afraid to ask questions is nothing to celebrate.

It’s not just that, intentionally or not, Etheart paints those students unable to acquire a résumé full of unpaid internships as participating in “indulgent leeching.” Stories about how an unjust culture pays off for a lucky few only promotes injustice. There’s been plenty of writing recently about just this, and it’s disappointing that the article refuses to engage with it. The sooner we speak up, the sooner we stop accepting exploitation out of fear, the sooner we change the system.

The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in human rights. She is a former editorial page editor for Spectator.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Smallbeks posted on

Well said, Grace! I want to add something about college resources--Barnard has a great opportunity where you can apply to get funding for an unpaid internship. You can usually only get it once in your college career, which makes sense because they want to spread the money around. I was able to get this grant, and a lot of my friends did it too, which is fantastic. The problem is that you have to have secured an (unpaid) internship already to apply. This means students risk not getting a grant and having to pay for their summer out of pocket, which not all students are able to do. It probably means that some students who would be interested in the program aren't in the application pool for financial reasons. Anyway, the bigger problem is that the internships themselves can't or don't offer pay. But to me this is another symptom of a very broken internship culture.

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Sick of the Entitlement Attitude posted on

Have you considered the fact that by the laws of supply and demand not getting paid means that society has more people in the field you're applying to than it needs? After all, we can't have everyone in the country majoring in music and art. Someone's got to do the actual work to keep the economy afloat, however dull and tedious it may be.

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NB posted on

Here here!

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Jaded posted on

There is nothing exploitative about voluntary labor. Keyword: voluntary. As in you don't have to do it.

Furthermore, you simply don't understand unpaid internships if you believe that there is no compensation. At my unpaid internship I am learning far faster than I have during any of my Columbia classes. This is like college with free tuition. It is a sort of training that will make me a far more effective full-time job candidate in the future, while allowing me to network and connect with people who know many people in the industry.

Meanwhile, I'm skipping meals or eating cheap food and tutoring students on the side to be able to live decently. But so what? Am I entitled to live on $300/week? Absolutely not. I'm making sacrifices now that will pay off huge in the future. I make the choices that I think make sense.

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Publishing Intern posted on

I think the point is that when it seems that unpaid labor becomes a prerequisite for paid labor, it ceases to be voluntary--and that's the problem. Students without non-labor-based financial support miss out on job opportunities because they couldn't afford to invest their time for free.

I don't feel entitled to live on $300 a week either, but I couldn't afford to live in the city at all during the summer if I took unpaid internships, and I work in an industry which is centered in New York. Even with my internship that pays minimum wage and two other jobs, I was living on $60/week to pay rent and utilities because I didn't have outside support from grants or parents. I get incredible experience at my internship, but to me "compensation" means being able to pay rent and eat, and text on my resume doesn't provide those services. I don't think anyone should have to sacrifice a healthy lifestyle when they don't know for certain that all that unpaid labor will pay off--and no one truly does.

The point is that it's unfair to pretend that the unpaid internship system will pay off huge in the future for everyone, when there's absolutely no guarantee for that.

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Jaded posted on

It does not cease to be voluntary. The only way for that to make sense is to totally distort the definition of voluntary, which means "acting on one's own free will".

Nobody put a gun to your head and forced you to take an unpaid job! Don't do it if you don't want to.

You chose an industry that is centered in New York. Again, this was not something forced upon you. Nor can this be blamed on an employer that is either going to give you an unpaid job, or no job at all. Yes, you heard me right. You can complain all you want about not getting paid, but if you aren't producing a return for your employer, they won't waste their time on you.

Direct your frustration at the politicians, not at employers. After all, if it weren't for the insane labor laws on the books, you'd be getting paid at least $5/hour.

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Sick of the Entitlement Attitude posted on

I couldn't have put it better myself. Hopefully one day our vote-bribing politicians will listen to the economists and get rid of minimum wage. Then your unpaid internship may very well be paid.

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Publishing Intern posted on

Wait, did you read my comment at all? I stated that I've never taken an unpaid internship, yet your comment reprimands me repeatedly for complaining about not getting paid. I *am* getting paid--I'm expressing concern for people who aren't.

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Publishing Intern posted on

However, regarding your actual argument--you're right that I did choose an industry that's centered in New York, which put me at a standard-of-living vs. wage disadvantage. I can't argue against that. But the rest of your argument doesn't really make sense. 1) You're basing it on an assumption that I'm complaining about being unpaid, which I'm not, and 2) I am producing a return for my employer, as do many interns, paid and unpaid. The questionable nature of an unpaid internship has to do with the fact that these interns are often being employed to do labor that would normally be paid for if it weren't for the unpaid internship system considering "work experience" to equivocate "monetary compensation." I hope that the details I provided concerning my budget during the summer indicate that these two things are not equivalent. I can understand companies such as non-profit organizations or smaller affairs not being able to afford to pay their interns even if they produce a return for their employer, but multinational corporations such as those found in the publishing industry definitely make enough profit (jeremiads about eBooks etc notwithstanding) to actually pay their interns, yet many don't.

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Anonymous posted on

If you don't have the money to support yourself in the city doing an unpaid internship over the summer, then take a lighter courseload and intern during the school year. It was a bit stressful, but doing so helped me find a paid summer gig that's helping me with FT job interviews.

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Anonymous posted on

You're still presuming that someone has the free time to pursue an unpaid internship. Several of my friends get take unpaid internships because they're already juggling part-time jobs to pay for their expenses. One has zero outside support and literally needs these jobs to survive. Where in her schedule, even with a light courseload, (and really, only light courseloads exists in the humanities and she'd be shit on for majoring there in the first place), an unpaid gig is out of the question.

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Sick of the Entitlement Attitude posted on

So why not switch majors to something that will get her a paid internship in the summer?

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Sick of the Entitlement Attitude posted on

Another whiny liberal arts major doesn't understand that the free market rewards people who produce what society needs, now what YOU want to do. If you want a paid internship, consider going into a field that actually produces something for society.

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Anonymous posted on

Yes, because the free market has never led to exploitation of workers whose value sustained the economy despite going under- or un-compensated. You're just a brilliant economic mind, aren't you?

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Sick of the Entitlement Attitude posted on

In a free market workers are compensated according to the value of what they produce. People with no education or skills will not be paid the same as people who have undergone years of technical training. This ensures that there are incentives for people to put the time into studying things that society needs.

I'm sorry, but the real world doesn't have a set definition of what "under-compensated". If you believe it does, your free to start your own little socialist utopian commune in the US. No one's going to stop you.

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Anonymous posted on

Dude, do you even understand that our society set up a minimum wage standard because we wanted to ensure that despite your value to the free market, everyone who is employed would be able to make a livable wage and not have to depend on anyone else? Is that "socialist" by your definition?

And in theory, yes. In practice, no. I'm sure that you have, as much as I do, stories of friends working in certain industries where fairly exploitative practices for interns are totally standard (fashion, publishing, etc.) where these interns are not being compensated for actual labor they are contributing. They are answering phones, writing analysis, producing 20+ hours' worth work per week that by anyone's definition is necessary and ought to be compensated, and not getting paid a cent. That's against the law, which is why former unpaid interns are starting to sue the hell of their former employers, and it's certainly not benefitting the economy. So, again, how is it utopian and anti-capitalist to ask that one be compensated for the labor and product they've provided?

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Sick of the Entitlement Attitude posted on

Minimum wage does nothing but remove jobs from the economy that pay below minimum wage. Ask any economist. The reality is that businesses can't afford to hire people at a wage that pays more than the value a certain employee contributes. If they do, then they risk going out of business and causing everyone who works there to lose their job. It's a competitive economy not just for people looking for jobs, but also for businesses.

You're basically asking employees to pay people for doing work that doesn't generate enough value for the company to justify being paid. It's a voluntary transaction that results in the unpaid-intern gaining experience which allows them to ultimately contribute enough value for a company to justify being paid.

I agree suing employers does not benefit the economy. That's why we need tort reform. But that's another issue.

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Anonymous posted on

"You're basically asking employees to pay people for doing work that doesn't generate enough value for the company to justify being paid. It's a voluntary transaction that results in the unpaid-intern gaining experience which allows them to ultimately contribute enough value for a company to justify being paid."

"Hey, I know you signed up to work for me for free for three months, but you've done such a nice job that I'm going to pay you."

Why would an employer do this? If an intern is truly exceptional, then maybe. If not, they'll just get replaced by the next intern. Doesn't mean that they don't have value--it's just that they don't have value over replacement (to use a phrase from baseball).

Minimum wage earners don't have value over replacement, yet still get paid; why not interns? Do you really think that doing an unpaid internship brings less value to a company than a minimum wage job?

For what it's worth, there's some recent research that suggests the relationship between minimum wage hikes and labor surplus isn't so clear. I know that that's not the same as the effect of the existence of the minimum wage in the first place, but as far as I know, economists in general like minimum wage. (Sure, according to simple models it creates unemployment, but when you're running a country things are more complicated than the simple model. Plus, you sometimes have to make sacrifices, like handing out monopolies to reward scientific research. It's for the greater good.)

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Sick of the Entitlement Attitude posted on

Let me rephrase. I meant that unpaid internships give the interns experience which they can later use to get a completely different paid internship, or a full-time paid job. I did not mean that unpaid-interns usually can turn their unpaid internship into a paid internship. This is a rare circumstance if it happens at all.

Many interns contribute less value than minimum wage mandates. They may contribute enough for an employer to pay them $5 or $6 an hour, but the law prevents employers from doing that.

Most economists agree that increasing the minimum wage increases unemployment: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minimum_wage#Surveys_of_economists.

No, economists don't like minimum wage: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minimum_wage#Surveys_of_economists.

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Anonymous posted on

For example, head coaches at the University of California produce greater value than Nobel Prize–winning economists, scientists, and physicians do. Robert Downey, Jr. produces something of greater value than an emergency-room physician does. (Glad he got all that technical training!) And, of course, we can't forget that Instagram is more valuable than 14,000 teachers.

I'm glad people are incentivized to study the things society needs. And I'm especially glad you learned something from sleeping through Gulati's class. Here's to social progress through a meritocratic society!

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Sick of the Entitlement Attitude posted on

Emergency-room physicians make a very high income relative to the average of the US and the world, as they deserve. Scientists can make very large incomes if they put their skills to the practical use of meeting society's demands by creating engineering innovations. Pure academic fields however, are over-saturated. More people are going into them than society needs, so the market is compensating by producing a low market-clearing wage.

I'm glad you mentioned teachers. With the AFT grabbing Democratic politicians by the you-know-what, they can gladly enjoy near-six-figure salaries at the cost of the tax-payer without having to demonstrate quality or be held to minimal standards. And anyways, the really smart kids don't even need teachers. They can just look things themselves online or read a textbook. I know that's what I did in high school.

Very few actors and sports stars end up making big money. The ones who do create revenue for the sports or media institutions they work for because consumers want them. They are providing millions of consumers with entertainment utility.

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Anonymous posted on

Value to society is not the same as value to individual actors.

Speaking for science, at least, many of the benefits are only realized 10,15,20 years after the fact. Private investors aren't usually going to stick around that long; that's why the government has to pour money into scientific research and grant monopolies (patents) as an additional incentive.

Education is a public good. It suffers from the same issues as, say, parks--society reaps much greater benefit from it than individuals realize, and so aren't willing to pay as much to keep it. Again, that's why the government has to step in.

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Sick of the Entitlement Attitude posted on

Value to society is the sum of value to individual actors.

Public (pre-University) education is a shame in this country. We have one of the worst public school systems in the developed world. What we need is a voucher-based system to promote competition and innovation in the education system without disadvantaging people born into poor families. This was the argument Milton Friedman made.

I really don't believe that education is a positive externality. The benefits of education benefit only the individual who receives the education. Society doesn't draw much benefit when many more people are going to college than we have jobs that require a college education. The situation creates wasted time and money for a large portion of college graduates. That's what's happening now as a result of easy government student loan programs. The only people who should be going to college are those who have the skills to get jobs that will enable them to pay off their loans. Besides, almost anything you want to learn is available for free online these days.

As for scientific research and innovation, the private sector is best at allocating resources where they're most needed for research. Companies have incentives to research things consumers want. Without the profit incentive, it's very hard to predict what research will be most beneficial to society.

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Anonymous posted on

Yes, because the free market has never led to exploitation of workers whose value sustained the economy despite going under- or un-compensated. You're just a brilliant economic mind, aren't you?

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Sick of the Entitlement Attitude posted on

Another whiny liberal arts major doesn't understand that the free market rewards people who produce what society needs, now what YOU want to do. If you want a paid internship, consider going into a field that actually produces something for society.

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Anonymous posted on

Hey asshole: If you knew the first thing about the author of this op-ed, you wouldn't be saying this stuff. Grace has spent every summer of her college career not vacationing with her family or friends but working with programs that try to make the world a better place for the least fortunate. If you don't think that produces something for society, then you are not only a moron (as your previous comments have already demonstrated), but also a bad human being. There is nothing "whiny" in this op-ed. If you see it that way, it's no doubt because you were born rich and have never had to strive for anything in your life. Congratulations on that, but not all of us were so lucky. When employers make it a de facto requirement that prospective employees accept unpaid internships, they are in essence saying "We're not interested in hiring poor people." This sort of policy excludes a lot of talented people, limits the diversity of experiences that employers have to draw upon, and allows assholes like you to continue being assholes because your money means that you can do whatever you want your whole life and get away with it. That being the case, I know that one angry internet comment isn't going to alter your worldview, or even make you reconsider the incredibly dismissive way in which you treat anyone who doesn't share your views (I'm being dismissive, too, but only because your comments have no substance whatsoever and consist of 100% unadulterated assholery). The only hope for you is that reincarnation is real, and in your next life you're born as someone who will actually have to work to make his way in the world. Until then, fuck off.

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Sick of the Entitlement Attitude posted on

Let me start by saying I have no idea who the author of this article is. I was aiming my comment more at the general attitude which this article and so many people seem to be espousing.

I was not born rich. I worked very hard to get into this school and develop a marketable skill. I didn't study something I was the most passionate about, but something that I knew society needs. Because of that, this summer I made close to $30 an hour. This completely covered my Manhattan rent and food.

Thanks for the unnecessary aggression, though. I hope someday you realize that even people who get paid are helping society. They're doing things that consumers demand, and thus are creating exactly what the population needs.

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Anonymous posted on

The market doesn't always know best. Econ 101.

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Jaded posted on

Wow, I didn't realize we were forced to accept philosophical doctrines in econ 101. You are assuming a utilitarian point of view that I personally would not adhere to. As a propertarian, I would argue that the market (defined as the aggregate of voluntary trade between people) does indeed always know best.

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Anonymous posted on

This is a fairly inaccurate critique of the previous article. Eligibility for CCE grants (the "Work Exemption Program") is contingent upon financial need as well as unpaid intern status. So if the concern is for "poor" students working unpaid internships, these are exactly the types of students who are most eligible for CCE grants.

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