Hundreds of thousands of high school, college, and graduate students work as interns each year. They work for large corporations, small businesses, nonprofit organizations, and the government. Between 75 and 84 percent of college seniors have held at least one internship, and as many as 60 percent of seniors have worked as interns multiple times. About half of all internships are unpaid.
Since our slide into recession, more and more businesses, large and small, are turning to low-wage or unpaid interns “to get the extra work done.” But the intern economy didn’t start as a recession survival strategy. The preceding two decades of increasing reliance on interns helped to create the ongoing crisis facing US labor: the substitution of contract work, perma-temping, and similarly precarious arrangements for long-term, secure employment. Internships are a method of preparing future workers for this exploitative employment and teaching them that free labor is the preconditon for the privilege of paid work.
Internships function as a source of near-invisible corporate welfare, socializing the costs of training and paying workers.
Internships can last anywhere from a few days to a year, but the classic example is the ten- or twelve-week summer position. Student interns may be involved in performing basic office chores, shadowing a mentor, or engage at a deeper level of engagement with an organization’s activities, like participating on a project team. Students sometimes enter internships out of curiosity about a particular career path, but most hope that their ultimate compensation for their free or low-wage work will be a good job in the field. Internships are therefore viewed as a smart investment in the future, regardless of the present sacrifices demanded.
One former intern comments, “Was my first [internship] exploitation? Of course it was. Did it help me out in the long run? Of course it did.”
Internships as Exploitation
The internship economy consistently exploits workers and increases class disparity. This is due to two fundamental aspects of the system. The first is the lack of pay or extremely low stipends offered to interns. Essentially, they donate their labor to their employers, and the lost wages add up fast. If we recognize that the estimated 100,000 unpaid interns working in a given summer could have been making the federal minimum wage, the lost wages add up to at least $348 million annually.
The stock defense of unpaid internships is that they are an extension of the apprenticeship model and that employers do not benefit from interns’ labor. However, there are no specific laws governing unpaid internships. The Department of Labor (DOL) finally made a move toward addressing the issue in April 2010 when it published “Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs under the Fair Labor Standards Act,” which is intended to clarify whether an employer is legally required to pay an intern. The determination hangs on whether the internship meets all of six factors, including:
“The internship…is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment…The intern does not displace regular employees…The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern…The employer and the intern understand that the student is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.”
The DOL was applauded for taking note of the exploitative conditions of internships, but their guidelines do not carry the force of law and are not enforced by any agency.
The second major problem with internships, especially unpaid ones, is the uneven playing field they create for those entering the job market. “They fly in the face of meritocracy,” Anya Kamenetz wrote for a 2006 editorial in the New York Times, “you must be rich enough to work without pay to get your foot in the door.” As long as internships are a prerequisite for high- or middle-wage employment, it disadvantages working-class and low-income students who can’t afford to work for free.
Recently-founded internship merchants—for-profit companies that funnel students into internships for $2,000-7,000 a pop—worsen this inequality of opportunity, many for whom these middlemen are unaffordable.
Thus, the market in college credit for internship experience is another version of internship pay-to-play. To insure that the legality of their unpaid internship programs won’t be questioned, many employers require that students receive academic credit for their internships. But employers don’t pay for the credit hours, and students wind up paying thousands of dollars to their universities for the privilege of working elsewhere.
The Social Costs of Student Internships
The unequal distribution of wealth, status, and education promulgated by the internship system is a burden borne not only by students, but by anyone who pays taxes, works, or goes to school in the United States. Internships function as a source of near-invisible corporate welfare, socializing the costs of training and paying workers. Not only do interns donate labor to for-profit businesses, but the support required for unpaid and low-wage interns draws from public and charitable funds, and potential payroll taxes are lost. Most directly, the public funds interns who wind up in welfare programs while working.
Moreover, at many universities and nonprofit organizations, grants, fellowships, and stipends are available to students to offset their internship-related expenses. Via the free labor extracted from interns, charitable donations, public funds, and scarce university resources are deposited into the coffers of employers.
Further, the low or no wages paid to interns bring down wages for all workers, as Jessica Curiale notes: “As unpaid internships become increasingly important and more individuals who can afford to forsake a paycheck agree to work for free, employers have little incentive to pay interns. Indeed, this is exactly why we have wage regulation at all – without it, the wage would constantly be driven down.” Competing with the ever-growing reserve corps of interns, workers are not only subjected to wage deflation, but their job security and ability to bargain collectively are undermined.
Who needs scabs when you’ve got interns?
The Privilege to Work
The rhetoric of internships is one of opportunity, experience, and investment. It presents the ability to work not as a right, but as a privilege and a reward. “Congratulations,” it says to the successful applicant, “You have been chosen.” Unpaid labor performed during an internship is seen as a hedge against the uncertainties of the post-college job market. Rather than teaching young workers to fight for fair conditions of labor, this system encourages them to internalize an ethic of donation: you earn the privilege to work only by gifting uncompensated hours to your employer.
Internships and their rhetoric contribute to producing young workers with subjectivities molded to the needs of twenty-first century capitalism. The educational system has always implicitly prepared students for the social and psychological realities of the factory, the cubicle, or the conference room. But since the advent of post-Fordism in the U.S. and its escalating instability and tendency toward crisis, what’s been required is a new kind of worker, one who thrives in casualized, informal, and precarious labor conditions. Internships help to produce these workers by modeling and normalizing the new paradigm of work: short-term, on-demand, lacking tangible benefits, and emphasizing self-disciplined, self-directed initiative over obedience.
What’s at stake for all of us in the continuation and growth of the internship economy is the making of a generation of workers who see precarious employment as the norm, or even as a smarter arrangement than the outdated long-term job with benefits. As long as they view job security and fair compensation not as rights, but as rewards for a privileged few, these millions of young workers seem unlikely to continue the struggle against inequality and exploitative labor conditions. Not only are internships wreaking havoc on the lives of all these students, they might also be permanently disabling our ability to win the war over the future of America’s working classes.