Interns are worth what they’re (not) paid

Interns are worth what they’re (not) paid, argues legal blogger Josh Blackman in response to a New York Times story which blames colleges for “failing to inform young people of their rights or protect them from the miserly calculus of employers.”

There’s no protection from the law of supply and demand, writes Blackman.

College students with no experience are not particularly valuable. Usually, they are a liability, and require extensive training and supervision to make sure they don’t screw things up too bad. Were interns to demand a salary at minimum wage, employers would be better to not hire them in the first place.

Unpaid interns can’t afford apartments in expensive cities, the Times complains, quoting a Colgate student who crashed on “more than 20 floors and couches” for a summer. “It definitely hurt my confidence,” Will Batson told the Times.

Few summer jobs pay enough for a student to afford rent in New York City, notes Blackman.

What’s unfair, he writes, is charging students’ tuition for a summer spent working off campus. Thanks to labor law, students can’t qualify for an unpaid internship if they’re not earning credit and they can’t earn credit if they don’t pay up. Blackman’s college charged out-of-state tuition but “provided no guidance, no assessment, and simply made my boss fill out some annoying useless forms.” Still, it was worth it.

An unpaid internship is an investment in your future. When two college students graduate – with the exact same academic credentials, but one spent his summer interning at an industry leader, and the other worked as a lifeguard – which one do you think is more likely to get the job?

Paid work is hard to find these days, even for college graduates. Unemployment is 25.7 percent for teenagers and 15.7 percent for those 20 to 24 years old, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Recent college grads are despairing of landing anything above the fast-food counter, where they face stiff competition from millions of recent immigrants,” writes Robert Knight, a senior fellow for the American Civil Rights Union, in the Washington Times.

If college graduates aren’t worth more to employers than recent immigrants . . . Well, let’s assume the unemployed grads earned low-value degrees from undemanding colleges — and never let themselves by exploited by a miserly employer.

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  1. My daughter is graduating soon and has been offered a few unpaid internships in expensive east-coast cities. We can’t afford this! We saved for her college and she has worked also and helped to pay for it. It must be nice to use your savings to spend it on living expenses during your unpaid internship, but that is not an option for us. As we understand this “no money, no position’? Nice.

  2. If college graduates aren’t worth more to employers than recent immigrants . . .

    At a fast food counter? Why would they be? The real issue is to get rid of the millions of immigrants. We should eliminate the family chain allowance.

    My son is interviewing for an unpaid internship in addition to his regular job. He’s got the time and it can’t hurt. If he’s kept, it will be a paid summer internship. But I warned him to turn down anything that required him to pay for credits. If he wants to pay to play, he can become a teacher. The benefits are better.

  3. I missed out on the cool internships in college since I needed to earn money for tuition. Even the paid internships didn’t pay enough to give me what the college said I needed to earn from summer employment.

    Fortunately for current middle class students, my university has taken steps to fix the problem– better tuition grants AND generous stipends to allow students to take unpaid internships.

    But that’s at a university with a HUGE endowment— one problem I see is that a lot of less competitive schools are now charging top-tier rates while providing the same bottom tier educations– it used to be that a student would pay less to attend one of these schools, and so could AFFORD other opportunities off campus. With the higher tuition, there’s really no benefit at all to most students.

    And even if you go to a top-tier school, internships matter A LOT…. A top tier degree combined with summers working retail gets you no where in the job market….

  4. This is exactly the situation in Third World countries. Unemployment is regularly at 25 percent, even in good times. Therefore to get a job you either have to do many unpaid internships and hope to eventually find someone with the right connections, OR you must actually PAY A BRIBE to get a job, or to get a license to work for yourself. It looks like America is headed down the same path.

  5. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Back in 2002 the unpaid internship thing came up in a slightly different context (at the time it was “one of the worst job markets in years” according to the NYT). Then, the articles were about how college graduates were having to take unpaid work in hopes of getting a permanent job and it was creating an unpaid work force that made it difficult for people to get actual paid employment.

    Now it seems they can’t even do that. Anyway, here’s (an excerpt of) what I said at the time:


    THE hope for permanent work — not the money — prompted Rona Cooper, 23, an honors student who received a bachelor’s degree in communications from George Washington University in May 2001, to accept an internship recently at the Bohle Company, a public relations firm in the Century City section of Los Angeles. She is paid about $1,200 a month and receives no benefits.

    When I read that I thought to myself “Wow… that’s pretty impresive that she’s brave enough to tough it out in hope of work like that. That’s only $14,400 per year – not a lot.” Yes, I felt admiration at her struggle, and remembered back to my days after college before I decided to go to law school. It was 2 years of odd jobs and tight budgets. But then I kept reading…

    But Ms. Cooper is grateful for the opportunity to work. She sent out résumés and had a few job interviews over the last year, but to no avail. The internship is her fifth; she had four as an undergraduate.

    “Wow,” I thought to myself. “She’s really going at it. And all those internships in college… the job market must really be bad if she couldn’t get an offer from any of those.”

    But then I kept reading:

    “Everybody is teasing me because I still don’t have a real job,” said Ms. Cooper, who lives in Beverly Hills, Calif., with her parents.

    Please. Not only doesn’t she pay rent, but she lives within biking distance of work. Of course, I doubt she bikes anywhere. Her parents probably bought her a car before she went off to college.

    When I was in college, a sophomore, I heard about these things called internships. My girlfriend had just gotten one at a publishing company. “Wait a second,” I said, “You work for these people and you don’t get paid?” I didn’t understand it. It didn’t make sense. I had a suspicion at the time that these internships were something of an upper-class conspiracy – a chance for the well to do kids to get job experience because they could afford to work for nothing while their parents supported them.

    * * * *

    Yes, America is a meritocracy. Yes, capitalism is wonderful and if low paid interns are pushing temps out of the market then that’s just the way it is. But that doesn’t make this whole internship thing fair.

    Well, it may not be a conspiracy. But it’s comin’ around. Live by the market, die by the market, I suppose.

  6. This is seriously true. The wealthier the parents, the more likely it is that the child will do one or several internships, in my community. Especially in fields like Communications, where the possession of a degree doesn’t necessarily mean much. Now, in Engineering, almost all students do internships, no matter what their family income, and the internships (or Co-op terms) do involve pay.

  7. Mark Roulo says:

    I wonder if the no-pay-for-internship is a non-technical issue. I work for a fairly high tech company and we pay our interns (and, I think, pay pretty well) as well as budget money for them to move their stuff out to California for the summer.

    Our basic assumption is that we can use the summer as a very inexpensive way to get a handle on how smart/talented the person is, whether they can learn new things, and how well they play nice with others. Since we figure that hiring the right people is critical, the money we pay them is considered well spent: either we find someone we want to hire, or even more critically we discover that someone who looks good on paper is someone we *DON’T* want to hire.

    And yes, they *also* consume senior technical people’s time for that summer.

    We still pay them a pretty good salary.

    So … is this non-pay thing just for non-technical internships?

  8. $0 is the market rate for those jobs. If people weren’t willing to do them for $0 then the market rate would reset until the price drove the jobs away.

  9. Mike Curtis says:

    Anyone who works for nothing is giving away their talent(s). Maybe if you could make “nothing” tax deductible, this would make sense. If I have to work for free in order to be considered valuable, then I deserve to be called a slave.