Legal observers are claiming that a lawsuit won by unpaid interns who worked on the movie Black Swan might spell the end of unpaid internships altogether. That’s fantastic. Might I add: let’s get rid of the rest of them while we’re at it.
Unpaid internships are exploitative and a massive waste of time for the intern. The thing is, paid internships might even be more insulting. Because a paid internship often means a meager per diem for an extended period of time. An livable wage made worse because a lot of coveted internships take place in cities with high cost of living. I once worked a summer internship for a newspaper’s website for which I received $500 for the entire summer. I’d rather not even think about what that works out to as an hourly rate. But somehow from a labor standpoint, handing out this pittance is almost respectable.
The way the idea of internships is sold to the public is that even though the interns aren’t well compensated, they receive invaluable experience in their field of choice. A mantra often uttered by career counselors is that internships “are what you make them”. This is meant to suggest that if an intern is persistent enough, they’ll actually get useful skills during their time at a company. That’s bullshit.
With few exceptions, internships are comprised of cheap labor doing the clerical or scutwork that established employees are glad to fob off on a naive underling. Sure, there are a few patronizing counseling sessions, in which the intern is constantly reminded how helpful to their budding career it is that they get exposure to the workplace while doing things like updating the company’s contact lists and making copies. Like anyone else trying to break into the professional world, I did a couple internships and I can’t recall a single instructive thing I did at any of them.
At every internship, there’s this moment when the bosses decide “let’s let the intern do this token not-totally-meaningless thing” with the assumption that it will help the intern on their next job hunt. In the world of newspapers, there’s the idea of “getting clips” which means having articles with your byline in various publications. With a nice portfolio of clips, someone will supposedly give a job. I had an internship at USA Today where my supervisor announced “Guess what? You get to go cover a bunch of lawmakers running a 5K race. You’ll get in the paper! What a good clip for you!” Yeah, that never helped me in the least.
Internships are also great reminders of economic disparity. Just to be able to complete an internship and make next to nothing in an expensive area, an intern needs some sort of financial support system, which eliminates a lot, if not most, working class candidates. If it’s a prestigious company we’re talking about, chances are the interns are all snotty, well-connected rich kids. On one hand, it’s probably the only time in their lives that said rich kids will be exploited in any way. On the other, their sense of entitlement gets inflicted on all the other employees they come into contact with.
In places where companies with internships are plentiful, this is a region-wide problem. For example, in the summer, an army of interns descend on D.C. Luckily, outside of work, most interns tend to hang in the same places, which is nice because avoiding listening to a group of boat shoes clad 22-year-olds namedrop which Congressman they work for is advisable when hoping to avoid an assault charge.
Time was, a college degree actually meant something. Sure, it wasn’t a guarantee for a good job, but at least it created prospects for you. That concept is almost quaint now. Try going out into the job market now with just a bachelor’s degree. You won’t get laughed out of an interview because you’ll never get one. Nowadays, to get anything approaching a decent starting job you need a degree and somehow five years of experience in the field. Internships are sold as experience, but they don’t provide it.
If internships serve any function, they show bosses that you’re committed to the job because you have a demonstrated willingness to waste your time and be condescended to in the service of getting hired. You’ve shown a tolerance for bullshit. You’ll go far, kid.