All Work and No Pay: Public Policy and the Internship Economy

Photo: Kaseya Blog

The internship was once a foreign concept to the average American limited to the experiences of students of medicine. Today, it has become a staple of the millennial career trajectory. A 2015 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that nearly two-thirds of graduating seniors had at least one internship or co-op experience, a dramatic rise from a figure that was less than 10% only three decades ago. Indeed, the fashionable nature of the modern-day internship is evidenced by its widespread use in our vocabulary, with the most recent spike in its popularity beginning in the 1980s and continuing well into the present day.


However, popularity isn’t always a good thing, and the way that many internships are structured has proven to be quite controversial. Some have argued that working class students are at a distinct disadvantage on the job market because they have to juggle the rigors of both college and paid work in addition to an unpaid internship. Others have asserted that the purported link between unpaid positions and future full-time, paid work is negligible or even nonexistent. In fact, the public affairs industry itself is one of the worst offenders, with internships in government administration, international affairs, and NGO management being among the least likely to lead to full-time jobs.


A string of recent studies, think pieces, and journal articles taking aim at the internship economy — particularly unpaid positions, which account for nearly half — has surfaced in recent years. Horror stories of shattered interns sneaking off to nap in restrooms and being sexually harassed by superiors have made their rounds in the news, promoting public awareness of intern abuse. Critics argue that this is the result of a workplace environment that dehumanizes interns, forcing many of them to work grueling hours with little, if any, pay or appreciation.


Public policy has been slow to adapt to the realities of the internship economy. The Department of Labor has a list of six criteria, all of which must be satisfied in order for an unpaid internship in the for-profit private sector to take place legally. Yet students in the social services, who are generally less attracted to the notion of working for a traditional for-profit business, are among the most vulnerable. Government regulations for internships in the nonprofit and public sectors are less onerous, and organizations that fall under those categories can more easily justify not paying their interns.


There is no law on the books that requires an employer to educate interns about the reality of the job market in their chosen field. As Forbes’ Rachel Burger puts it, “in most sectors where unpaid internships abound, it’s because there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around.” Thus, while businesses, organizations, and government entities are happy to accept free labor from eager, starry-eyed young people, many of them consider the professional development of their interns to be a side concern, if one at all.


It should be noted that, while unpaid internships might be exhausting and unfair, they are preferable to actually having to pay to work. In an egregious example of this disturbing trend, Democratic strategists Mitch Stewart and Jeremy Bird came under fire in 2014 when they offered unpaid internships to aspiring young politicos who paid their program fee of $5,000. Although direct payments for the privilege to work are uncommon, the day-to-day expenses of working in an unpaid role are not. Transportation, tuition, housing, and food all come with a hefty price tag. With all those hidden costs in mind, it is no wonder why the word “unpaid internship” is a misnomer; you’re paying to work if you’re not getting paid to work.


Until policymakers come to terms with the fact that the internship economy is weighing down the future generation of middle class consumers, they cannot adequately address this looming disaster. The internship bubble will burst some day, and it behooves us to prepare for its inevitable “pop”.

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