Internships, Dare I Say Revisited?

As promised (warned?) I am returning to a previous story yet again today. While it may be a bit lazy to keep going to the same trough, the unpaid intern issue at the Charlie Rose show I wrote about a little over a week ago has legs. While I wrote that I was in favor of unpaid internships for the opportunities they give many students who would not be able to gain work experience otherwise, some people are seeing another side of it. Indeed, like so many things these days, some folks have gone so far as to turn it into a class issue.

 Their argument is that unpaid internships are really only for people who can afford them, that they are career advancement tools for the privileged. This view was also expressed in the comments section, if only rhetorically, by Mike Azmera, a friend of the site, contributer and all around deep thinker.

Though I value Mike's opinion in so many things, I just have to agree to disagree with him and many others who believe that unpaid internships create insidious problems and serve as a weapon in the class wars. While it is logically true that being able to afford an unpaid internship is a prerequisite for accepting one, it is worth considering what afford means.

It of course could mean a privileged individual, knowing that he or she will be supported by a trust fund, rich parents or an eccentric uncle, who therefore has no fears about going without for a summer during which she is not being paid. However it can also mean a working class individual with no such lifelines who is happy to get a government agency or stockbroker's name on his resume even without being paid. He might work nights at a bar, accept a work study program as part of his financial aid, or save up from other jobs to take the opportunity. It might be a struggle, but then, the payoff of getting a job based on that experience is made all the sweeter.

For anyone who doubts that this scenario can play out, that is actually my story. As I noted in the comments section of the Charlie Rose post, I took unpaid internships during both undergraduate and graduate studies and wouldn't have been able to get experience any other way at the time.

In economics terms, I traded my labor for a name on a resume and a recommendation from someone who mattered to future employers. In slightly more etheric terms, this working double duty and taking advantage of opportunities is described by some as the American Dream. Though I will sadly grant that this concept is becoming more and more remote to many folks in these tough times, I hope it is at least recognizable for most of our readers. Otherwise, America has a lot more trouble on its hands than unpaid internships.


  1. To be fair, I meant to note that I have also worked unpaid internships along with a night/weekend job to support the internship.

    I don't know if that adds anything, I think that it simply says that the point where we agree to disagree is the point where we decide who would be more detrimentally/positively affected: the employer required to pay minimum wage for formerly unpaid positions, or the intern who suddenly recovers wages for previously unpaid work. Makes sense to me, that's probably the line that divides a lot of opinions on this matter.

  2. Hi Mike,

    I am happy to see my gambit to provoke a comment from you succeeded!

    As much as I see your point, I think we will have to continue to agree to disagree...I think that a ruling where the intern recovers wages for unpaid work would have a detrimental effect on the whole market, not just the case or employer at hand. If employers see that the system is becoming more strict with these rules, they are far more unlikely to provide the types of opportunities that you and I have both worked double duty to be able to afford.

    Analogizing to a concept that will be discussed ad nauseum this week with regards to healthcare, it is almost like a Commerce Clause argument; even if the farmer growing wheat for himself outside the quota system doesn't impact trade, he impacts trade. If Charlie Rose has to pay up, it honestly won't be much out of his pocket, but it could be disastrous for the market itself.

    All that said, I am confident that I would have a hard time turning down a check from a previous internship if one were forthcoming. Maybe I console myself by repeating to myself the old saw about free lunches, remembering that it applies to employers as much as anyone else...