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Unpaid Internships: Race to the Bottom

There's been a lot of chatter around the blogosphere since the NY Times ran with this article about the Labor Department's crack down on illegal unpaid internships. The reaction has been predictable. Liberals are proclaiming that it's "about damn time" while the libertarians are crying "socialism" and whining about the infringement on our right to work for free.

This all misses the bigger picture.

Internships are no longer about gaining objective experience. They are about obtaining more semesters/years/credit hours/whatever of experience than the next guy. The reason so many people do so many of them is not necessarily because they want to or because they care about learning something in their unpaid role. The dirty secret is that young people are taking unpaid internships because they are constantly being told that they need to pad their resumes with four or five internships before graduation in order to have a fighting chance at landing that entry-level dream job (or these days, any job). The more unpaid internships that each individual person does, the more social pressure that it puts on everyone else to do them. A classic race to the bottom.

(from Flickr user croncast)

The libertarians want you to believe that if organizations aren't allowed to have unpaid interns, all those awesome unpaid internship opportunities will disappear - a great catastrophe. The logic continues that without all these unpaid internships, college students will be screwed because they won't have all the necessary resume padding when it comes time to start the entry-level career search.

As long as we can reset our expectations, the fact that people will graduate with fewer internships won't matter.

When someone says the reason they are doing something, internship or otherwise, is because "it looks good on a resume," you have to seriously question what's happened. Something that's truly valuable would also look good on a resume, but the reason a person would give for doing it would extend well beyond the superficial benefit of "the resume." We've gotten to the point where people feel (rightly or wrongly) obliged to do things only because they think it's a necessary prerequisite to something they actually want to do in the future. Excessive unpaid internships are about as good an example as you can get.


Mel said…
I worked at an unpaid internship for six months -- and this was when I was 29 years old with a mortgage! I thought somehow it was exclusive, and that having it on my resume would pull some awesome PR position out of the air for me. It didn't. Even though I completed a lot more important projects as an intern than the full-time "marketing assistant" did. (Felt bad for her, actually).

I think having worked since I was a teenager has given me more "life experience" than anything.

This is also why it's taking me over ten years to finish school.
catfood said…
The laborer is worthy of his wages. Or hers.

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