Tuesday, May 30, 2006

That's Just, Like, Your Opinion, Man

I have an op-ed in the New York Times today, which expands on a digression I made in the book about the value of internships.

Update: I posted about it on the Huffington Post. I will be contributing to them occasionally from now on, and will post links back and forth.

Also, a number of the people who've responded have wished that I dwelled more on the unfair class implications of internships--the fact that you have to be able to pay to get your foot in the door. A story by Jennifer 8. Lee in the NY Times 2 years ago underlined this point, which I think is a very good one.

A reader writes:

I had several friends who were forced to make a choice over whether to gain valuable experience and connections as an unpaid intern or earn money that summer and live at home. Many of them were forced to choose the later thus leaving them out of the summer internship club with nothing to put on their resume and losing out to those with enough money. I call it a club because that’s exactly what it is – if your family has enough money then you’re in. If you’ve walked around Capital Hill in summer time you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.


Michael M. said...

Congratulations on the publication of your op-ed. Google led me here. It raises many good points, but one of the biggest deserves more attention than it received.

"They fly in the face of meritocracy — you must be rich enough to work without pay to get your foot in the door. And they enhance the power of social connections over ability to match people with desirable careers."

Students from poor families have severely limited access to every field that uses unpaid interns. I wish you had given more attention to the role of internships in maintaining economic divisions. They do lead privileged students further into debt, and the practice is certainly exploitative. Other young people are too poor to go into debt.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for raising this issue on the pages of a journal of consequence.

Internships are a total scam. Having been suckered into more than one in my early career I now have vowed to eradicate this shameful and opportunistic system of indenture and abuse in my professional sphere of influence. I've promised myself that my future young colleagues (when I eventually have the ability to hire them) will be compensated fairly.

However: I also believe that colleges must do their part to properly prepare students for the reality of our modern workplaces. American students are woefully ill-equipped to produce. Quantitative, scientific and engineering students are not only fewer in number than their liberal and creative arts peers but also less able to handle the rigors of modern business, production and service sectors than their foreign-born and educated counterparts.

This disadvange is seeded quite early in students' careers - for example, when the college board eliminates logical reasoning in favor of english composition in S.A.T.'s they are preparing students not for realistic market labor needs but for a seductive fantasy world where screenwriters, journalists and novelists are in as much demand as financial analysts or computer programmers. It's deceitful and unfair to high school and college students to structure educational systems around english communication and creative arts as much as modern institutions do.

So while I applaud your efforts to expose the unjust nature of the internship gulags, I also hope that your research into economics shed light on the nature of skilled labor demand and supply. That which is bountiful will always be inexpensive, and American students are unfortunately deluding themselves into thinking that their skills will always and unconditionally be valuable, regardless of market need.

Anonymous said...

From your column: "I was an unpaid intern at a newspaper from March 2002, my senior year, until a few months after graduation."
It seems that your unpaid intership at the Voice did exactly what you expected it to do- lead to a better job later. It's the reason you wrote your book and are a published columnist. Would you have been better off had you been a waitress all that time? Your economic arguments make no sense either.

Anya said...

The point is not that unpaid internships are not valuable. The point is that not everyone can afford to do an unpaid internship. Which means unpaid internships are not the best means of connecting qualified people with jobs. Paid internships would do a better job of that because qualified people who aren't well-off might be able to afford to take them. And that would be better for the labor market as well as individuals.

Anonymous said...

When I graduated from a California state J-school in the early 90s, unpaid internships were all but required to have a chance of getting any journalism job. This did not seem outrageous, as journalism was known as a low-paid, insecure, do-it-'cause-you-love-it profession. But I was dismayed, eight years later, to discover that this trend had crept into law.

Instead of "internships," these unpaid jobs are called "externships." Judges make frequent use of them. One law school classmate scored a prestigious federal court position, but had to pass it up because she couldn't afford to live in San Francisco for the summer while working for free. Another line was crossed when a very competitive student set up an unpaid externship with a mid-sized *private* law firm. Although it drew some negative comments from other students, his gambit paid off when he was chosen over the firm's paid summer law clerk for a post-graduation job.

It's one thing to work for free for a charity or a glamor profession. But law is supposed to be one of the few professions in which people from working-class backgrounds can be reasonably assured of moving into the middle class, in return for the unglamorous sweatshop labor they perform. If the subsidized kids take that, what's left?

potent potable said...

"Paid internships would do a better job of that because qualified people who aren't well-off might be able to afford to take them. And that would be better for the labor market as well as individuals."

Yes, but when a firm pays more for interns, its expenses increase. To balance that increase, they may have to reduce the number of internships available, which is bad for the labor market and job-seekers.

Companies could fund more paid internships by raising prices, but that ultimately makes the cost-of-living for young folks even higher, so eventually you're back to the original problem.

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