Thursday, 23 September 2010

Should the Government ban unpaid internships?

It is very rare that I disagree strongly with India Lenon - the Telegraph Student blogger who makes incisive comments about education - but today is certainly one of those days.

In her latest post, Lenon jumps on the bandwagon of a movement that is popular in both Britain and in America - the movement to force companies to pay their interns.  It has been discussed often in Britain, and it looks like something that Obama would try and force through into law in America if he has the chance (although it is now looking like no such chance will arise.)

The argument is that interns, especially in the current job market where gainful employment is sparse, often work ridiculous hours, doing the worst possible work, for little or no money.  This is true.  Therefore, the argument goes, employers should be forced to pay interns a decent (or "living" as the common drivel goes) wage in order to be compassionate and fair to the interns.  This is false.  Let me explain why.

Having recently been in a situation myself where I left University with few employment prospects, I can say with certainty that no-one, and I mean no-one, wants to be an intern if there is a full-time job available doing something in their field.  Whether that be business or politics or fashion, we would all much rather be in full-time employment doing the thing we love.  However, with the recession dragging on and on and on, there is no work available in the fields in which we studied.  The student is therefore faced with two options:

a) Get full time work in low-level jobs at McDonalds etc
b) Apply for an internship paid or unpaid.

Many students reason for the second - the idea is that by working for less/no money, one can make contacts and gain experience that might open a door into the profession.  So, if you are working as an intern for an MP for instance, you work for six months for an MP as an intern, another one notices you, likes the work you are doing and says "There is a job here in my department.  Fancy it?"

Now, there are many paid internships as well, however these are few and far between, and as I found out, can have somewhere in the region of 350 applicants per position.  Nice work if you can get it, but you probably can't.  So, people subject themselves to unpaid internships hoping that that will do the trick, however difficult it may be.

People taking India's position will say "Yes, yes, but if they were ALL paid, then it would be better for everyone."  Well, yes that is true in theory.  But in reality, a basic knowledge of economics and the price system tells you that once you make something more expensive, people buy less of them.  So a company that can afford to employ two paid interns and then give 10 unpaid interns travel expenses now might employ three paid interns, but will not employ any more AND will make those three work even harder.  Now, that isn't dreadful for that third paid intern, but its terrible for the other nine who are now denied the opportunity to work for that company.

People such as India are no doubt well-intentioned - the stories of unpaid interns being slogged to death are by no means pleasant stories, but instead of being compassionate, India's desired government interference would actually deny opportunities to students trying to make it in the jobs market, as it would mean less positions were available.  It is not telling companies what to do - more it is telling students "You are not allowed to work for free."  The government should not have the right to do that.

Unpaid internships aren't great, but when they are often the only prospect of an unemployed student being able to work in their desired field, we musn't deny them opportunities on the basis of some distorted notion of "compassion."

1 comment:

  1. I have now worked in seven unpaid internships / externships in the past six years. I just turned 30 and with all my "experience" nobody will hire me for a paid position yet. Sick of staying home and not working (because my family is a family of hard workers, some would say workaholics), I am thinking about taking on yet another unpaid internship (I'm a grad student).

    The theory is nice on paper: "work for free for six months, show them what you got, then they will hire you for a paid position." But that is a best-case scenario. The last two internships I had lured me in with promises that if a paid position opened up during or shortly after my intership, I would of course be chosen, because I wouldn't need to be trained. Guess what happened? Well, I think you already know. The first internship, ending in 2009, didn't have any positions open up.

    Fine, so I took on another unpaid internship. The second one, ending in early 2010, clearly promised me I would be hired for a paid position which was already vacant. But near the end of my internship, I later learned, they had decided to hire someone else for the paid position. BUT THEY DIDN'T TELL ME. They kept it a secret so I would pathetically keep working for them until he (the new guy) came on.

    So I ask you, in the above situation, where is my recourse? How can they be allowed to get away with this? Why have I given so many years of my life to corporations and legal aid organizations only to get nothing in return? In the US, the more hours you work on payroll, the more the government will give you in Social Security payments when you retire. But here I am, with six years of hard work, and not a dime in my SS retirement account.

    So Adam, does that seem fair to you?