This is one of my least partisan columns. While government is run by politicians who are often beholden to contributors this is not a clear left-right, Democrat-Republican issue. I want to reconnoiter the exploitation of our youth and reinforcement of inequity in today’s America of increasingly important internship programs. Let’s explore.
Let me give the unfamiliar an example of just what an internship is. Most often a college student just after graduation goes to work for an entity in their chosen field for a specific period of time. They are expected to produce but are not officially part of the staff. Most times they neither receive pay nor benefits and that is the crux of the problem. (It is an increasingly common practice for internships to be a graduation requirement.)
There are several positives of internship programs. The intern gets to spend some time in their chosen field and see if it is truly something they are comfortable with. What sounds like a cool job in reality may be something very different. An organization gets some new ideas presented to it. Since colleges are the incubators of ideas often students and recent grads are familiar with the cutting edge in any field.
Here comes the double edged sword: Internships have become the on ramp to employment at many organizations. Corporate culture is at the root of that. The intern gets to see if they like that particular firm. The firm gets to see if the intern is really a good fit. Also the premium shifts from performance in the interview to performance on the job. This is a win-win. The employee should be happier while their employer should get more productivity thereby increasing profit. (This theory applies to non-profits also.) A fly in that ointment is an old nemesis: greed. Too many greedy organizations exploit interns as free labor. Adding insult to injury they often have interns do the grunt work thereby denying the intern the real world experience an internship is designed to present.
It costs money to work. Living expenses are often higher in the workforce than as a college student. If the internship is a graduation requirement the student is often still paying tuition. The internships that lead to the highest compensating jobs are often located in cities with high costs of living. The advantage is clearly in the court of the child of more well-heeled parents. A poor kid leaves school with significant student debt and little if anything in the bank. Asking them to move to Washington, New York City or the like, and work for a paycheck of zero for months or a year is simply economically unrealistic. Even if they can get the “opportunity” of the internship due to their academic achievements and interviewing skills they can’t afford to accept it. Keep in mind their wealthier competitor already had an advantage in that their network helped them get the interview and the offer in the first place. The economic inequity further exacerbates a bad situation.
When upward social mobility largely based on merit is stifled society loses. The professional who helps you down the road was not necessarily the original best candidate, but the best among the candidates who could afford to work for free for a period of time. This is not a situation that calls for blowing the system up. What we need to do is require that internship (at least at for profit firms – many non-profits need the intern to stay solvent) outside a degree requirement be fairly financially compensated. That is far from a complete solution but it is a significant step in the right direction and makes for a more equitable America.
In full disclosure: I sit on the Board of a non-profit that utilizes unpaid interns and often (but not exclusively) hires from that pool of talent. The vast majority of our internships are filled by those completing a graduation requirement.
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