Unpaid Internships and Equal Opportunities

A blog about business and economics.
June 12 2013 3:18 PM

Would Banning Unpaid Internships Increase Career Opportunities for Low-Income Kids?

I fetched a lot of Starbucks as a Rolling Stone intern in the summer of 2000.
I fetched a lot of Starbucks as a Rolling Stone intern in the summer of 2000.

Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Duncan Black argues that "unpaid internships shut out people from less wealthy backgrounds from important, desirable, lucrative, and influential career paths" and should be banned as violations of minimum wage laws.

I hear this a lot, but I don't think the argument is that sound. Or, rather, I think we need to break down the different kinds of internships most clearly. I used to work at a progressive nonprofit policy and advocacy organization. Said organization had economic fairness and the promotion of economic opportunity among its core objectives. It also offered paid internships to college students. What's more, they didn't just pay the interns. They made a real effort to ensure that they were giving intern jobs to kids from working-class families, to kids who went to more obscure public colleges as well as the most elite schools, and of course paid attention to ethnic, racial, and gender diversity. All that is great, and I think the managers of any similarly situated nonprofit ought to try hard to make their case to donors that this should be an integral part of the budget and the mission.

But now consider journalism. Do unpaid internships in the media industry lock poor kids out of the profession? I think that depends on what you think the likely alternative is. If the Labor Department cracks down, are we going to see a blossoming of paid internships?

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My worry would be that we'll replace zero-salary work/training positions with what amount to negative-salary training in the form of graduate school. Both the unpaid summer internship and the master's degree in journalism are based on the idea that eight semesters worth of college leaves most people ill-qualified for a paying journalism job without some further seasoning. And while requiring people to spend months working for free does put a substantial barrier in the way of someone who can't get financial assistance from his parents, requiring someone to spend a year or two paying many thousands of dollars to a school creates a much larger barrier.

And it seems to me that if you look at some of the problems in American education—whether that's in terms of college dropout rates, student debt, or the bleak fate of high school graduates with no college record—we arguably need something along the lines of more unpaid internships rather than fewer. Of course, if you want to push for that you probably don't want to call them "unpaid internships." What you want to do is talk about the need for more vocational education, the success of the German apprenticeship model, the failures of existing job training programs but the desirability of making them work better, etc. But that's all just to say that erecting extremely sharp walls between "education," "training," and "work" doesn't make a ton of sense in theory and isn't working out very well in practice either.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.