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The Young and The Feckless: Cash vs. Cachet: The Potential Intern's Quandary

One thing you'll notice if you spend any time following youth issues in the media is that coverage comes in waves. The Pew releases a report, new employment stats for the quarter come out, etc. and all of the mainstream outlets take a turn at reinventing the wheel via their own spins on the story du jour. In the last few days, the illegal and, in some quarters, unethical nature of unpaid internships has been on the front burner.

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Photo by Travis Isaacs

There are clear and not inconsequential issues around workplace safety, workers' rights and the exploitation of eager young things as coffee-fetchin' grist for the capitalist mill, but what these stories gloss over in a perfunctory couple of sentences is the contribution that unpaid internships make to widening the inequality of access to upwardly mobile jobs in corporate America. Internships are now seen as the de facto door openers to launching one's career on the right foot, but if the majority of those internships are unpaid, the students who reap their benefits are the ones who have the resources (personal or familial) to support themselves for several months sans income. Those who don't have that luxury are forced to seek out jobs that will keep them afloat financially. Even if these positions provide hard skills that will benefit students in their future careers, they lack the cachet of an internship on Capitol Hill or at a Fortune 500 company. Regardless of whether said internships include job content much beyond fetching coffee and babysitting the photocopier, as a signaling credential for future employers (which is a real but often unacknowledged value of internships), they blow a summer spent as assistant manager at Big Bob's Mini-Putt and All-Night Bingo right out of the water.

It creates a vicious Catch-22. If internships are the price of admission to corporate America, you can't afford not to pursue one if that's your ultimate career destination, but if they're unpaid, you can't afford to take one if you don't have the resources to work without pay for three or four months. Experience is swell and all, but when the choice comes down to resume boosting vs. paying your rent, the immediate will always take precedence, even at the expense of future benefit. When you're at a financial disadvantage, the relative luxury of thinking in terms of short-term pain for long-term gain is laughable. What good is growing your LinkedIn network and a glowing reference from the VP of Marketing if you can't afford your tuition next semester?

The Economic Policy Institute does have a legislative proposal in the works that suggests offering low-income students stipends for internships in the not-for-profit and government sectors. And while that's a start, it doesn't account for the fact that many of the most attractive internships are in the private sector and that, in an ideal world, a student's financial means (and her/his lack of connections) shouldn't be an insurmountable hurdle to pursuing a dream of growing up to be a self-aggrandizing social media "rockstar/ninja/guru" hybrid for one of the country's leading digital ad agencies.

Of course, the issue goes beyond unpaid internships and encompasses what I refer to as the self-actualization gap (shouting out my boy Maslow), wherein the Haves (both within America and globally) have the resources (time, money, a support system, institutional access) to pursue opportunities and activities (everything from high school sports participation to yoga classes to kicking back reading trashy novels on the patio) purely for the purposes of edification/enrichment, self-improvement, recreation, etc., while the Have Nots are more than likely too busy making ends meet to devote their already fragmented attention and energy to such pursuits. The idea of the self-actualization gap (especially as it relates to Gen Y and the characteristics that are validated and extrapolated as representative of the whole when our cohort is placed under the analytical microscope) is one I hope to revisit in future posts. Hint: the staff members of Big Bob's rarely get to stand up and be counted.

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Comments

9 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I am one of these unpaid

I am one of these unpaid interns (at a feminist magazine, no less!). It's not fair that only those who can afford to work without pay for four months get to have internships. They expect you to have wealthy parents or to have saved thousands of dollars just so you can volunteer your time without any other job. The idea really is elitist and it sucks that it has to be like that. The only reason I was able to take my internship is my grandfather sued for an injury and agreed to help me out with the money he won. As far as the internship goes, I love it and am learning a lot. I work full time every day and I'm not required to do dirty work like getting coffee or making copies. Since it's a non-profit, what I'm doing isn't against the law because it's legal to volunteer for non-profits (mentioned in the NYT article). Although I could probably argue that what I do is a position that they'd have to pay someone else to do. They honestly couldn't run without interns.

A little bit of chicken and egg

I often wonder how much we contribute to this situation. So many of us were raised on the notion of following our dreams, at all costs, and when that is combined with the corporate world (and really, any number of businesses), it makes for an ugly reality. This seems particularly true of the arts - if you happen to dream of being an engineer, that disconnect between work and pay doesn't seem to be as vast.

I don't have a problem with paying one's dues, but it's tipped too far into just plain old slaving away for free. Coming from a writing background, I've seen this happening far too much in the media world. It's right up there with the expectation of writing for free - "you'll get exposure, I promise, and I'll make more money."

To be clear, I'm not saying it's the fault of any individual intern who finds themselves forced to work for free, I just wonder how this idea became so pervasive and acceptable. As more people take free internships, more companies jump on board and only offer free internships, more people are forced to take free internships, and so on and so forth.

RE: A little bit of chicken and egg

I agree, especially re: your point that this attitude/expectation is particularly pervasive in the arts and in the not-for-profit sector. And I've fallen for the carrot of "Exposure! Open doors! Future opportunity!" more than once myself. I actually wrote about this issue and the need to adequately value ourselves in the job market for my other gig recently: http://generationmeh.com/2010/03/24/why-free-milk-does-you-no-favors/

RE: Chicken and egg

Somewhere along the way, we got sold a package of goods that doesn't quite live up to the reality. This is a topic that's come up on one of my writing list-servs a lot - just about everyone has a story about being asked (read: expected) to provide their writing free to for-profit enterprises.

I have trouble seeing how that might change though - unless all employees/interns start saying no, en masse, there's little incentive for change. And it has to be en masse, otherwise there's little incentive for me to turn down a free gig when I know someone else is going to come along right behind me and accept it. Which means I simply lose out on an opportunity.

I was fortunate enough to get a well-paying magazine internship when I started out, but a few years later, they lost their funding, but maintained the internship program. However, there has definitely be a resulting shift in type of applicants since. Not necessarily for the worse, but the applicants are younger and so forth. Ultimately, unpaid internships aren't necessarily doing the companies any favours either.

Et Tu, Bitch Magazine?

I love you guys, and your magazine, and am sure that you are doing the best you can to make things work for those who help put your issues out and keep your website running. But considering this analysis of un-paid internships was posted at a site whose organization only offers unpaid internships, I would have appreciated some self-analysis as well.

Since we feminists are dedicated to openings doors, and giving equal opportunities to all, what is Bitch - (And Ms., and Bust, etc> doing to make sure that minority and low income women have equal access to the valuable opportunities that come from networking with some of Feminism's biggest media outlets?

Personally, I could never afford to intern for Bitch Magazine. Although the internship is part time, it's in Portland, and I live in DC. Even if I scraped together the moving costs, with no guarantee of finding a job right away, I'd be at a huge risk of having to move back home halfway through.... While, there are other organizations here on the East Coast, what about low-income feminist students who don't live near LA or NYC? What are we doing for them, as a movement, to make sure they get the opportunities they need? Because volunteering at your local DV shelter, just doesn't catapult you in the same way as getting to know Ellie Smeal does. What as, a movement, are we doing to help these students.

Specifically, Bitch - what are YOU doing?

Here's what we're doing

Thanks for your comment. Though this blog and the article it responds to specifically address the social, economic and legal issues with unpaid internships in the *corporate* world, we think about the opportunities we provide interns, our ability to attract diverse interns, and the implications of unpaid internships a lot.

Although most of our internships are unpaid, one thing we do is try to partner with groups like AmeriCorps who are able to provide funding for people who want to intern at Bitch, and with colleges and universities with placement programs that offer stipends for interns. It should also be noted that our internships are not full-time and we offer as flexible a schedule as possible for interns, most of whom have other jobs.

We also understand that there are people who want to be a part of Bitch and who would benefit from having Bitch on their resume who can’t be in Portland. That was one of the reasons we recently launched the Bitch Leadership Council, which is a group of women spread out not only across the US, but in other countries as well.

We’re really proud of the opportunities we give Bitch interns and volunteers to build skills, add to their resumes, make connections, and have a good time, but as a movement, we will always be trying to do more.

Julie - thanks for the

Julie - thanks for the reply. While, I still think unpaid internships are limiting to low-income persons, I appreciate that you took the time to reply.

I'd like to suggest that you make more public your efforts to get funding for interns on your site. For those who neither know or know to ask, these resources are essentially useless, as they turn away from applying, assuming they can't find funding. Perhaps you could include this information, about programs such as AmeriCorps, so that those interested in applying know you are doing this. At the least, you'll get credit where credit's due.

Thanks again,
-Megan

For-profit vs. Non-profit internships

I am no stranger to unpaid internships. As an art history student about to graduate from college, I've interned in various arty capacity ranging from no compensation to a sizeable stipend. And yeah, unpaid internships are definitely discriminate against certain groups of individuals that cannot rely on their parent's financial support to explore their career options. I was lucky that my parents decided to help me out when I scored an internship at a prestigious museum that could only offer me a bare minimum. Even though it made a bit of a dent in my savings, I don't regret that summer one bit; I learned so much more than I have learned in four years of art history coursework, and I have made some really great connections. A lot of people do not have this sort of opportunity.

Julie-You mention that this blog entry is meant to attack unpaid internships in the corporate world. From what I have seen, most corporate internships are, in fact, paid. For-profit organization have the resources to pay their interns, and they do so generously. Consulting firm Bain & Company offers a $10,000 stipend to their summer interns, which to a future art museum professional like me is an unimaginable and miraculous sum of money. And after working at both large and small non-profit art institutions, I understand that the non-profit sector doesn't have these same sort of funds to offer good pay to their interns. I think the fact that most non-profit internships offer no or minimal stipends is a bigger concern than corporate internships. Even an unpaid corporate internship is likely to pay off soon. There are more entry-level jobs in the corporate world; all of my business friends are gainfully employed, not undertaking a fourth internship in the field, unlike me and my non-profit folks. Not to mention that taking an unpaid position in the corporate world is more likely to be a better investment, because ultimately you will get paid a prettier salary than your non-profit counterparts. This unbalance between the for- and non-profit sectors is the real issue. College students from minority and low-income groups are more likely choose a career path that they believe will make them more money. I have had such people tell me that they don't have the same sort of luxury to indulge themselves in majors like English or Art History because it won't lead to secure career path. As a Puerto Rican, I am often the only woman of color in my art history seminars or interning at a museum. Non-profit unpaid internships (and job salaries in the non-profit world in general) discourage minority and low income individuals from pursuing those career paths, and I think it's really taken its toll. I would like to see more ethnic and economic diversity in the arts, but it seems to be at a standstill when you can't offer people more money to stay in the field.

So my question is where to go from here. We've recognized the problem, and you have mentioned some great things that organization like Bitch are doing to try to lessen the disparity, like partnering with AmeriCorps. I've heard that foundations right now are interested in funding internship programs aimed at increasing diversity (something I also benefitted from, receiving a decent stipend one summer through a program geared towards increasing the involvement of women from historically disadvantaged backgrounds). What else is out there?

Thanks

This is an issue I thought about a lot back when I was in college, and had to work full-time every summer instead of taking an unpaid internship. An I am positive that it affected by ability to get a job in my chosen field upon graduation (publishing is a notoriously competitive industry). It is elitist, and I'm glad to hear that something at least is being done to level the playing field, even if only in a limited way.

I also appreciate you raising this issue. It's always been an important one to me.