Unfunny Rant about Economics — Proceed at your own risk

What exactly is an intern?

In some cases it seems to be an unpaid training period for a high level profession that absolutely requires on the job training. A good example of this is a doctor. It is a necessary step in the education process in some ways similar to an apprenticeship. There are some things that you absolutely have to learn by doing. Most technical schools end with some form of internship. In many cases it is the most valuable part of an education, and although an unpaid training period is almost invariably some form of hardship, it also needs to be figured in to the cost of the education. In industries where it is required, it is valued and serves to further a later career.

Then there is the legal or political internship. It is not absolutely required to be a lawyer or government mover, but it is generally considered a part of the process. Unlike the medical internship, however, these do not tend to be part of the established curriculum. The student shops themselves out for a short period of time to a firm or government agency, HOPEFULLY gets valuable on the job experience, and comes away with a valuable reference and maybe some important connections. It helps to have a family that can afford to support you in a major metropolitan area while you do unpaid work, but it is not impossible that you could support yourself with a second job and enough hard work. If you are young and unencumbered, in the long run this sort of experience will probably serve you well. Even if the place you work essentially has you running the copy machine, fetching coffee and taking notes at meetings you will come away with that reference and a leg up in the old boys’ network of connections that this country’s industry really runs on. Sure you may be exploited a little, but you have made the decision that your long term gains vastly outweigh that exploitation. And it is your decision. You should have the right to sell yourself at whatever price you wish.

There are other industries which traditionally employ interns in low level positions in which the jobs themselves actually have zero to no learning experience, and the interns take the positions simply to get their foot in the door of a competitive industry. In sports or entertainment, interns often do the work of pages, gofers, personal assistants and clerical help, and they do these jobs NOT for training, but for business connections. Once again a cost benefit analysis is done, and the young person decides that it is vastly better for them to do unpaid clerical work in a high profile industry for a short period of time than it is for them to do low paid summer work that doesn’t net them future connections.

All of the above examples are cases in which there is a long standing tradition of taking on interns. The role of the intern may be more or less exploitative, but it is understood to be short term and to the long-term benefit of the young person. However, in our new economy more and more businesses seem to be seeing the word “intern” and reading it as “zero expenditure labor”. Even worse, some companies see interns as a way around hiring skilled contractors for their short term needs, and in the current job market they are actually having some success as the labor pool becomes more and more desperate. Ads for interns list professional level requirements. Interns are sought for skilled positions outside of the company’s core business model. This is akin to a restaurant offering a bookkeeping internship in March and April just in time to do the taxes. The intern is not being taught anything, or mentored. They are just being given the opportunity to work for free.

The problem with the above is that it is not a closed system. You may be willing to allow a company to make a profit on your unpaid work because it is to your longterm gain, but that ignores the fact that you are essentially filling a position in that company that would otherwise have to be paid. I am not speaking here of the student who is allowed to tag along with a high level mentor and try their hand at doing something they otherwise would never have access to. I am speaking of the four students who are brought in for 10 hours a week who end up doing the job that would otherwise be done by one paid front office worker. That is one less front office worker with a job, and it also sends a signal to management that the work of front office workers is of limited value. It might take twice the man hours of interns to make up for one skilled employee, but when the cost to the company is zero, that is not much of a downside. Actual adult professionals with families are placed in the position of competing for their jobs with people who admittedly may be less skilled, but come at a negligible cost. When you see ads for marketing interns or design interns with professional level requirements, and those positions are not for marketing or design firms, it is a fair bet that someone is trying to get free services.

This is all why the government actually has strict laws regulating unpaid internships. I don’t think that these laws are really there to protect the interns from exploitation. It is a fact that NO ONE FORCES anyone to take one of these positions. The laws are there for the same reason that minimum wage laws exist. At times when the power structure disproportionately favors the employer, these laws keep market forces from devaluing the entire labor pool. When extremely low cost or free options exist for management, it brings down the earning power of everyone except those at the very top. The fact that this only results in short term gains, and possible long term liabilities has very little impact with the current corporate structure which is primarily driven by short term quarterly profit. On a societal level the reduction of the earning potential of the majority has a negative impact on the purchasing power of that majority, and in the end, results in losses to the economy and the weakening of the very companies that initially benefitted. However, these effects are slow and seldom show up on balance sheets. And these laws are seldom, if ever enforced. Changes to the laws which allow someone OTHER than the intern to report malfeasance have sent up squawks of “Big Government Fascism” from corporate leaders.

Are unpaid interns a major drain on society? Probably not, compared to outsourcing and a general corporate oligarchy that has been slowly turning the concept of paid labor back into the mode of indentured servitude and serfdom of previous centuries. However, they are a particularly galling example of the trend toward disenfranchising paid, mid level skilled work and favoring those who can afford to spend a short period of time among the great unwashed before ascending to their future corner office.


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