Unpaid internships hurt mobility

In his excellent piece in today’s New York Times on the declining economic mobility of Americans, Jason DeParle mentions a commentary by Reihan Salam for the National Review Online, “Should we care about relative mobility?

Salam disputes that there’s anything wrong in the natural tendency of economically successful families to give their children special advantages in the competition for jobs, education and other resources. He admits, however, that affluent white families may have social networks that blacks cannot access and that protect whites, but not blacks, from downward mobility. Salam writes:

“To be sure, there might be an incumbent-protection story here, as Scott [Winship] has suggested. That is, it is possible that non-black families in the top three-[fifths] of the income distribution are giving their children advantages that protect them from scrappy upstarts in ways that might damage our growth prospects. That really is a legitimate concern.”

The particular mechanism Salam identifies – internships — is one that EPI has identified as a serious problem for the economic mobility of minorities and for the labor market in general.  Salam recognizes that internships are sometimes reserved for the affluent: “Moreover, parents who have achieved some success tend to be part of social networks that can give their children access to valuable economic opportunities. Even the most committed egalitarian won’t deny her daughter the opportunity to take an internship with a beloved friend and colleague just because other children won’t get the same leg up.”

Unpaid internships, in particular, exclude students from poorer families who can’t afford to work for nothing for a summer or a semester, especially after they graduate from college with tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt. The children of affluent families, on the other hand, can afford to live in the most expensive cities in the U.S., such as New York and Washington, making contacts, building their resumes, and sometimes even learning skills, while their parents pay for their room and board, travel and entertainment. Before even taking into account the family connections that reserve some of the best opportunities for the sons and daughters of the affluent, the $4,000-$5,000 cost of, for example, moving to Washington and living for 10 weeks prevents almost any working class kid from taking an unpaid internship.

As Ross Perlin points out in his meticulously researched book, Intern Nation, the number of unpaid internships is growing exponentially, fueled by the failure of the U.S. Department of Labor to enforce the minimum wage, a new industry of internship coordinators and consultants, and the recession. It’s hard to quantify the impact of this phenomenon on the decline in economic mobility, but I suspect it has been substantial and will continue to grow until the  Department of Labor cracks down on what is, in many cases, illegal exploitation.


  • Annmaria

    I rarely have unpaid interns because if you do take the responsibility seriously to mentor them it takes more of your time than you get back in free, inexperienced labor. I’d rather hire them for an entry-level position and if they stay it pays back the time spent training them.

    Plenty of internships, though, are unpaid grunt work.

  • http://twitter.com/jmichelmetz J Michel Metz

    Seems to me that one does not necessarily lead to the other. 

    Unpaid internships (promoted by university systems) are driven largely by supply/demand. If there are far more students than internships you’ll find a lot of unpaid ones. If, on the other hand, there are far more positions than students, you’ll find them paid. I saw this when I was teaching at the university level in Georgia, South Dakota, the UK and Florida.

    Don’t forget that internships that are based within university systems are given academic credit as well. So, payment may not necessarily come in the form of currency but there *is* a value exchange occurring. In fact, those internships are designed for vita-building, not anything to do with ‘living wages.’

    Obviously, there are choices to be made both from the perspective of a student as well as an employer. But as a professor who oversaw/worked with interns for over a decade I know that the “poor little rich kids” who got the choice interns were the significant (albeit highest profile) minority of potential interns.

    • Christina Marie Chapman

      Yes. you can get credit at universities for doing an unpaid internship. And you have to PAY TUITION for those credits. So not only do you work for free (and somehow find a way to pay bills and eat) but you also have to pay $1000 to the university for the “privilege” of working somewhere for free.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mary-Carson/100000136867119 Mary Carson

    I don’t know how corrupt University internships are, but ‘private’ internships are everywhere.  3 interns work 3 days a week for 3 months, then are ‘evaluated’.  There “may be a position opening later this year.”  They receive a “stipend” of $200 a month.
    The interns work round the clock, in competition. 45 to 55 hours a week.  The hope of keeping a waitress job on the side is abandoned – you miss too many chances to “drop by tomorrow if you get a chance – something has come up and I could really use your help”
    Things are busy, and the 3 month review gets shoved back a few times.  It comes at the 5 month mark, when 2 get ‘fair’ reviews, and 1 is encouraged to “find a better fit”
    At this point they are told they’re both doing “wonderfully”, and given $100 as thanks for “pitching in when things got so crazy the last few weeks.”
    Now they are encouraged to train on the real employees jobs, to “better integrate the staff” A few more months go by. Another review, another “not a good fit”, one left standing.  “There may be a position in the future, we just don’t know yet.” She keeps on till the next review.  Is told they are just thrilled with her, she’ll start full-time next month.  In the meantime, make sure you are familiar with employee X’s job, spend this week shadowing him.  We’re going to have you take over his position, but don’t tell him yet, we want to at his review.
    Employee X was not promoted, he was fired at his review.  Now you really have to prove yourself, but to really increase your output after working more than full-time as an intern will be rough.  At the 2 month mark you get a review, and an ‘opportunity’.  “We’re bringing in some interns this quarter, and we’d love to have you supervise them. The interviews are next week, here are the resume’s.  Hire one, but keep 2 or 3 more on file.  If things go well we’ll be needing 3 or 4 to get through the busy season”
    She’s got a job, at a fair salary, after a difficult 6 months.  And now she gets to screw over a new set of graduates.
    Somebody needs to put a stop to this.  It’s awful.

  • GuyStanding

    Ross, internships are just one of many symptoms of the growth of the global precariat. Unless the needs and aspirations of that emerging class are addressed, there will be no progressive politics worthy of the name.

  • Blissex

    Well, the story is that there is a gigantic global oversupply of labor, and  there are many more young job seekers than jobs.

    This makes for a buyer’s market, and there are only two possible outcomes: a minority of protected insiders get good jobs straight away, and the rest stay unemployed, or there a period of begging for a job after which most insiders and some outsiders get a so-so job, and the rest stay unemployed.

    The problem is not internships, it is that there are so many applicants for any job that employers can get away with them.

    Internships have always been the norm in job markets, like those for humanities and art jobs, or for academic jobs, where too many job seekers are chasing too few opportunities. Now that has extended to most jobs.

    Removing internships simply means that insiders with a shining backrround, connections and resume get straight onto the so-so jobs, instead of having to compete a bit with lesser aspirants as “Mary Carson” reports. That may be a worthwhile goal, but it is not going to change the final outcome, just short circuit 6 months of (willing, desperate) exploitation. The inequality of the outcome does not change.