Internships: Paid Slave Labor or Legitimate Learning Experience?

The fact that you can even see one car in this picture is surprising, given the sheer quantity of snow that has fallen in the past few weeks.

The fact that you can even see one car in this picture is surprising, given the sheer quantity of snow that has fallen in the past few weeks. At this rate, they should start offering  internships for snow related professions!

Snow might be covering everything as far as the eye can see, but I know what most of you have on your minds: your plans for the summer. As college students, you can no longer dawdle during your vacation. Ask anyone and they will say that they have applied to a number internships. Internships have exploded in popularity recently and play a critical role in the job sector of the economy.

Apprentices often bring to mind early America (think Benjamin Franklin), when teenage boys worked alongside men in various professions. Internships are the 21st century version.

Apprentices often bring to mind early America (think Benjamin Franklin), when teenage boys worked alongside men in various professions. Internships are the 21st century version.

What exactly is an internship? It is similar to an apprenticeship, but not quite. An apprenticeship is job specific and usually involves working alongside an expert in the field. An internship, on the other hand, is much more broad in nature. It is an opportunity to be exposed to a field in which someone is potentially interested. A successful internship is a learning experience and gives the intern a thorough idea of what a particular job or line of work entails. Since it is an experience, though, it has slowly been transforming into fodder for padding one’s resume. As a result, having one internship in which you actually do meaningful work is often perceived as less impressive than having a plethora of internships in which your main function is to organize a pile of papers. That, then, begs the question: quality or quantity?

Potential interns wait in line and are treated like they are part of a slave auction: they are cheap labor with little to no rights.

Potential interns wait in line and are treated like they are part of a slave auction: they are cheap labor with little to no rights.

Of course, hiring someone to work as an intern raises the issue of money. An intern clearly does not have the title of employee. Do they legally need to be paid? If so, must they also be paid at least minimum wage? At first, I thought the answer was obvious: working as an intern without receiving any form of monetary compensation is akin to slave labor! Legally, as always, the issue is much more complex. There is a six factor test issued by the Department of Labor that dictates the following 6 criteria that qualify an internship to be unpaid:

  1. The internship is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment. (You actually learn something from it!)
  2. The internship is for the benefit of the intern. (The company provides you with the opportunity to be exposed to the field you applied for, and not be forced to do meaningless, unrelated work.)
  3. The intern does not displace paid employees. (The company cannot make you do something in place a current employee so as to avoid having to pay the hired worker.)
  4. The company provides the training and derives no immediate advantage from the activities of students, and, on occasion, the operations may actually be impeded by the training (The company must train you as to what to do, and it cannot use you for worthless tasks, such as fetching coffee.)
  5. Students are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period. (The intern knows that s/he is not guaranteed a job at the end.)
  6. The employer and the student understand that the student is not entitled to wages for the time spent in training. (Both parties involved know that this is free labor. The company knows that they are getting a good deal, and the intern knows that s/he is getting the short end of the bargain- but is still willing to do so.)

Companies obviously want to avoid having to pay interns at all cost (pun intended) and therefore want to fulfill these criteria. Realistically, though, it is almost impossible for them to do so; most do not care about the intern’s learning experience. As a result, they frequently stretch the truth as to the nature of the internship. Most likely, they lie. You should be well aware of the fact that even a lunch or transportation stipend still does not legally cover the requirement for receiving a wage. Simply put, most unpaid internships are illegal.

Outrageous internship demands have been immortalized in The Devil Wears Prada.

Outrageous internship demands have been immortalized in The Devil Wears Prada.

Many people believe that internships are ethically problematic on multiple levels. One major issue is that of wages. Companies will pay either abysmally or, if possible, nothing at all. In their eyes, the intern is simply cheap labor. Unlike employees who commit to a company, interns come and go. Accordingly, they are viewed as worthless and are given meaningless, tedious work that is unrelated to the job. Companies are notoriously cavalier when it comes to intern exploitation; they have no qualms about asking interns to do petty favors, such as fetching a cup of coffee. It becomes rather difficult, almost impossible, to glean insightful experience about the job when you have no active exposure (except maybe to slave labor)!

 

This is JP Morgan Chase's CEO Jamie Dimon. Recently JP Morgan has come under fire for hiring the children of many Chinese elite in order to win business with their parents.

This is JPMorgan Chase’s CEO Jamie Dimon. Recently JP Morgan has come under fire for hiring the children of many Chinese elite in order to win business with their parents.

Besides for the actual institution of internships, there is also a great deal of controversy regarding those who are actually accepted. There are a plethora of internships available, but because companies sense student desperation, they continue to be selective. You can find them by searching online, or, more specifically, on LinkedIn. Applying is the easy part; the real battle is getting a nonautomated response. The best way to circumvent this annoying roadblock is by getting an internship through a connection. I have frequently witnessed people who get an internship through a family member or a family friend. This method has a higher rate of success in terms of getting a legitimate internship. However, it is very unfair because it reinforces the age-old problem of nepotism. People can will lounge around and passively wait for an opportunity to head their way. Laziness is condoned, while ambition is unrecognized. C’est La Vie.

In economics, the concept of barriers to entry is discussed in relation to the various types of market structures. In a perfect, or pure, competition, no participants have enough influence to be market takers and influence the price of the items. There are many companies that sell the same product, and it is therefore easy for another company to join the market. However, in a monopoly, where there is one party that controls the market of a certain item and consequently, the price, it is nearly impossible for a company to join the market that is already completely dominated.

In economics, the concept of barriers to entry is discussed in relation to the various types of market structures. In a perfect, or pure, competition, no participants have enough influence to be market takers and impact the price of the goods. Every item is practically identical and therefore costs the same. With  every company selling the same product and bearing the same amount of influence, it is easy for another company to join the market. On the other hand, in a monopoly, there is one party that controls the market of a certain item and, consequently, the price. As a result, it is nearly impossible for a company to join a market that is already completely dominated.

A former professor of mine raised another issue. I knew he would have an opinion on the matter, and he did not disappoint! He argues that the institution of internships ultimately serves the upper class. For one, the wealthy have more pull and connections with top companies. On a more economic level, those who are not financially stable cannot afford to take off from their paid job and spend a few months as an unpaid intern.  The opportunity cost of missing a paycheck is far greater than the experience they could potentially gain from an internship. Furthermore, there is an economic concept called the Time Value of Money, which states that a given amount of money at the present moment is worth more than the same amount in the future. There are a few formulas for calculating future and present value, but the basic gist is this: by saving your money now and investing it, you can make more money. If you spend it, you lose that money plus any interest you could have made on it. Similarly, even if an internship increases the prospects of landing a well paying job in the future, the paycheck you receive now is, in comparison, more valuable. An internship, which is supposed to be an opportunity for learning and growth, therefore services to a privileged demographic. Furthermore, barriers to entry (exactly what it sounds like- something that prevents you from entering) exist for people trying to enter all job fields. However, barriers to entry acutely impact members of the lower class, who lack the many opportunities that are available to the wealthy. Therefore, by not partaking in any internships, they further lose out on experience necessary to break through the barriers to entry of a particular industry and to get a good job.

Because of the unpredictable nature of the economy, it is important to get internships. Granted it is disgusting the way in which many companies are exploiting young workers; often, they use interns as a way to circumvent the cost of paid employees. In fact, I read a recent article in which college graduates could not land a job, but they were hired, time and time again, as interns. It is a sad reality that the competition for internships now is not among college students and their peers, but also rather with recent graduates who should be in the pool of employed workers!

I could have made a fortune as a private SAT math tutor. Instead, I helped underprivaleged high school students who could not afford $100 an hour tutors. In that way, I helped even the playing field of those taking the SAT, so they had just as great a chance to do well as the wealthy students who hired private SAT tutors.

I could have made a fortune as a private SAT math tutor. Instead, I helped underprivileged high school students who could not afford to pay $100 an hour. As a result, I helped even the playing field of those taking the SAT; my students were as prepared to take the test as the wealthy students from private schools.

Last year, I applied ad nauseam to many positions, only to get rejected by all of them. Instead of getting bogged down, I chose to volunteer at Let’s Get Ready instead. I had to work hard (I also took 2 summer classes!), but in the end, the experience was rewarding. I felt that I had truly accomplished something- I had impacted people’s’ lives. Of course, an extra bonus was that I could add that experience to my resume. Future employers would see that I am not just ambitious, but also altruistic. Internships are an important part of any college student’s resume, but do not forget that there are other options, too!

Published in: on February 17, 2014 at 9:17 pm Comments (1)


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  1. on February 20, 2014 at 8:16 am Elena Caban Said:

    Great post, Leora!

    I agree that internships are usually necessary, and great for your resume – I did one myself. They are problematic (they really do privilege wealthier students, as you point out), but nevertheless a fact of life.

    Also, you (and your audience) may be interested in idealist.org; it’s a listing of great internships, jobs, and so on. Some of the internships are even paid!

    Keep on writing!

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