The peculiar economics of internships
Truth is, it's hard to work up much sympathy for the exploited intern class. Largely upper-middle class, college and even graduate-school educated, interns often beat out hundreds of their peers for the honor of holding unpaid grunt positions. Typically, they depend on the kindness of their parents, for a place to live and/or an allowance. The less financially fortunate work nights and weekends figuring they'll have time to sleep when the internship ends. Clearly, interning is not recommended for the faint of heart or the weak of pocketbook.
Internships are usually billed as 'resume builders,' important stepping stones for young people interested in breaking into highly competitive 'glamour industries' such as fashion, publishing, architecture, and television.
Sure, every so often a bust-assing intern might snag a production assistant position at CBS or a really good recommendation from an editor at Spin -- or Utne Reader, for that matter -- but aside from these much-touted Horatio Alger instances, the tangible rewards of interning are underwhelming.
What people don't think about, writes Jim Frederick in The Baffler (#9), is the economic impact of these industries' growing dependence on the countless hours of labor provided by young, willing, unpaid workers. Take MTV -- probably one of the choicest internships around. Frederick reports that the network uses between 150 and 200 unpaid interns at any given time and requires from each at least two days a week of work. If MTV's army of interns were to be paid minimum wage, he estimates that the cost would set the network back some $642,270 a year. Extending the same formula to the estimated 40,000 unpaid internships that are filled each year nationwide ? and assuming that they each last 12 weeks ? he comes up with a whopping cost savings (for business) or wage loss (for interns) of $39.5 million.
So why are so many young people lining up to work for free? 'The glamour industries enjoy a tremendous surplus of labor,' Frederick notes. 'There are more people who want media jobs than can be employed. Therefore labor is cheap, as demonstrated by the industry's already low salaries. If it can, a market will bid the wages all the way down to zero, as long as someone, anyone, will do the work, for whatever real or imagined benefit.'
This phenomenon owes much to the 1990s hyperwork culture, what former intern Margie Borschke, writing in the lifestyle magazine Shift (November 1997), calls the 'extreme Protestant Work Ethic' where go-go-go is the watchword for Surge-slugging twentysomethings. And after padding their resumes with three, four, or even more internships, increasingly, many young people are signing up for a new form of exploitation: freelance and contract work. 'Our willingness to take internships eradicated many entry-level jobs, and our willingness to take freelance and perma-lance positions further shrinks the corporate employee base,' she writes.
That vicious cycle is now beginning even before college, as school-to-work programs have taken hold in many high schools. These internship-for-credit deals help introduce students to the working world, explains Adria Steinberg in the public policy journal Current (July-Aug. 1997), but they can just as easily be seen as a school-sanctioned extension of the unpaid college-internship system, starting ever-younger people on the seemingly endless cycle of unpaid labor. ('Screw child-labor laws. This way, we can get the little squirts to answer phones for free!') Of course, you don't need to be a child of privilege to hold down a high school internship, so at least kids who might not be able to afford an unpaid internship later on can make connections and forge alliances on the public schools' dollar.
Whatever the case, Frederick concludes that federal regulation of internship programs is light-years away. Until then, my sage advice for interns is to hone your ass-kissing skills and start calculating your back pay. At last count, mine totaled (not counting for inflation) somewhere near $3,912.