I had no idea the topic of unpaid internships was so contentious when I first blogged about it on Let’s Level the Playing Field by Ruining Everyone’s Chances, as it elicited vociferous and emotional responses from readers and fellow arts bloggers alike. I assumed it was clear that by forcing arts organizations to pay set wages for specific periods of time, it would reduce the availability of internships and ultimately hurt the pool of hopeful interns trying to get their foot in the door. In the already-competitive world of the arts, depriving interns of choices just makes it that much more difficult to get necessary experience and resume-building opportunities.
Since then, the unpaid internship debate has been making some headlines, with pro and con opinions abounding online.
Wall Street Journal, “War on Interns: Making It Illegal to Work for Free”
While the Department of Labor may insist the world owes these kids a living, the truth is that many young workers are willing to trade free labor for a chance to demonstrate their skills and build a resume for the next job. Especially in a bad labor market, the choice college students face may be to work without pay, or hang by the beach.
This isn’t exploiting young people. It’s letting young people exploit an opportunity.
The Washington Examiner, “Obama’s war on internships (and female employment)“
Pricing interns out of the market proves especially salient for women, who make up 76 percent of the internship pool nationwide, according to the American Psychological Association. When opportunities evaporate for would-be unpaid interns, women will be the hardest hit.
The Future Majority “Unpaid Internships Bridge on Slave Labor“
Despite the overall con opinion, even Future Majority writer says,
I’ll admit I did unpaid internships while in college full time and working part time and many of the innovative online experiments I run in campaigns I am only able to do with the support of a staff of unpaid internships because campaigns don’t want to pay their staff to try new things. So I rely very heavily on interns both for support staff and for new and sometimes crazy ideas.
To be clear, it appears the administration is only cracking down on unpaid internships with for-profit organizations, which seems it would not greatly affect non-profit arts organizations, but who knows what the future holds.
The major flaw in thinking with those who want to crack down on unpaid internships is they believe organizations will replace all previous unpaid job opportunities with paid opportunities and pull from the same pool of unexperienced workers. Like it or not, most internships often include a component of “real” work in addition to the educational experience that is supposed to be provided, and employers offering internships are likely to be more discriminating about the prior experience of applicants when they have to pay for it. Furthermore, it seems odd to have to pay a student to give them an education – this model is unlike any educational model I’ve seen – which all require payment by the student for their learning experience (either through tuition or taxpayer support).
The most amusing response I read on the topic shed light on the ultimate hypocrisy of our government in this debate. From Donald Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek:
It’s unclear, however, why the same young people whom the President judges to be unfit to choose for themselves whether or not to work as unpaid interns at for-profit firms are fit to choose for themselves whether or not to work as unpaid interns at not-for-profit organizations. So I urge this administration, which is ever-vigilant at protecting us from our irrational and helpless selves, also to prohibit young people from working as unpaid interns at not-for-profit outfits – such as political campaigns.
Indeed, Mr. Obama should not only apologize to the thousands of young, unpaid volunteers whom he exploited in 2008 for his own profit – namely, to win his election to the highest pulpit in the land – he should also give to each and every one of them back pay (with interest) for their efforts on his behalf.
The bottom line in this entire debate is that people should be free to work for free if they want to. End of story. The argument that young people are too stupid to make the decision to work for free and are being exploited because they are afraid to call out evil would-be employers is just laughable! I’m assuming they are equally free to quit the job? The argument that only rich kids can afford to work for free is equally comical.
Again, increasing the wage of internships will not increase their availability and many people need to work for free to gain experience. If someone truly cannot afford to work for free, their path may be longer and more indirect or they may need to work two jobs (one paid in an unrelated field and one unpaid) in order to gain experience. The reality is, an unpaid internship is simply a formalized extension of the oldest business and networking advice, “Do people favors for free.” This puts you on their radar, shows you are a go-getter, and makes you far more likely to get a paid position when it becomes available.