The moral bankruptcy of the internship economy

Every now and again I use Twitter to make a multipoint argument. Today I talked about unpaid internships and youth unemployment. The tweets have gotten a lot of attention, so I’m reposting them here. You can follow me on Twitter at @sarahkendzior.

This is what I wrote:

Thomas Friedman writes on the internship scam. He benefits from the scam, so he doesn’t call it a scam.

Here is how the internship scam works. It’s not about a “skills” gap. It’s about a morality gap.

1) Make higher education worthless by redefining “skill” as a specific corporate contribution. Tell young people they have no skills.

2) With “skill” irrelevant, require experience. Make internship sole path to experience. Make internships unpaid, locking out all but rich.

3) End on the job training for entry level jobs. Educated told skills are irrelevant. Uneducated told they have no way to obtain skills.

4) As wealthy progress on professional career path, middle and lower class youth take service jobs to pay off massive educational debt.

5) Make these part-time jobs not “count” on resume. Hire on prestige, not skill or education. Punish those who need to work to survive.

6) Punish young people who never found any kind of work the hardest. Make them untouchables — unhireable.

7) Tell wealthy people they are “privileged” to be working 40 hrs/week for free. Don’t tell them what kind of “privileged” it is.

8) Make status quo commentary written by unpaid interns or people hiring unpaid interns. They will tell you it’s your fault.

9) Young people, it is not your fault. Speak out. Fight back. Bankrupt the prestige economy.

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72 Responses to The moral bankruptcy of the internship economy

  1. Janvi says:

    This is true! Someone needed to say it..

  2. David Fulenwider says:

    The boys, (and a few girls), at the top must always find ways to get as much as possible for themselves plus a little for the stockholders. Don’t be fooled, Ayn Rand’s ideas are at work.

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  4. Yes, so much yes. Thank you for saying it.

  5. Erstwhile Anthropologist says:

    Glad that people are listening to you, Sarah. You’re insights are spot-on and eloquent. And I appreciate that you are one of a few high-profile anthros actually tweeting links between racism and structural inequality and unemployment, in a way that signals more than just “see, I’m not racist” PR.

    So please take this comment as supportive critique: I really think it is important to link discussion and the Policy Mic interview to issues of racist and sexist abuse in the academy (and especially the situation coming out of the Berkeley Anthropology department). The cover-up of abuse (especially sexual abuse and assault) at prestigious universities is not and should not be seperate from this conversation on the prestige economy and economic/academic precarity.

    The same fear which keeps people in line in the ways you discuss above and in the Policy Mic article also works to keep untenured faculty and graduate students from speaking up to challenge even the most heinous and sociopathic forms of abuse, for fear one will be denied a job and pushed out of the academy. And the forms of retaliation which can be taken against dissenters are race and gender specific: some people can be punished much more viciously and violently than others, because of race/gender/color. Universities are so invested in ‘brand management’ and prestige that they care more about covering up abuse and assault than protecting students from abuse and assault.

    These issues may seem tangential, but they are not, because they speak to the larger practices and structures of exploitation and precarity made possible by the same prestige economy that has made working for free seem a necessary part of trying to make it in a system which claims to be a meritocracy but is not.

  6. Antietam says:

    It seems like everything is in “internship”. When I look at job ads, unpaid internships abound for web development, graphic design, and similar. Of course, none of these are actually registered with any schools, so no credits are earned. It’s just free tech work for smaller startups. But… that’s really all there is . You need a CV to get an actual contract anywhere. But even then, it seems everything is an internship – even the contracts :P

    • Splash says:

      I’ve seen a number of internships that WOULD have interested me, even though they were unpaid, had they not contained a line reading “you must be a student getting college credit for this internship.”

      So, basically, you want me to work for free, pay all my own living expenses, AND pay my school $250 a credit even though I don’t need any internship credits for any of my graduation requirements.

      And that was before I graduated. Now I’m not eligible for those internships at all.

      • Anna says:

        I’m about to volunteer with a small organization who’s just starting their internship program. The coordinator continually referred to school credit as a given, but we stopped him to explain how much we’d have to pay in order to register it with the school. He had no idea, and we were able to negotiate different terms.

        Unless you’re looking at corporate situations, I suggest contacting the organizations personally and explain your background and goals. There’s a chance that they include it as a requirement simply because it’s become standard.

  7. Dave says:

    Sounds about right to me. I went to UT Knoxville and Memphis for undergrad and grad school. Got my MA in poli sci while racking up over $50k in loans, and that’s with in state tuition. 3 years after graduating all I’ve been able to find are 3 unpaid internships, a 3 month (low) paid stint on a campaign and less than a dozen call backs from interested employers. In 3 fucking years. I don’t know how people without a understanding parent(s) do it.

    • Martin says:

      Get a degree in a field where there is work…or hustle harder to get one of the twelve Political Science jobs that are out there.

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  10. Holly Jean says:

    Maybe you saw this piece in the Economist a few weeks ago about how job training is set up in Germany — apparently 2/3 of young people go through these programs. It’s always worth pointing out that other countries deal with these issues in other ways; it makes it seem less of a vexing conundrum to know that alternatives already exist. … http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21578656-germanys-vaunted-dual-education-system-its-latest-export-hit-ein-neuer-deal

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  13. Really though. I got an internship at the only media company in my area that paid interns. I was lucky. As my peers went off to New York to not only pay to live but work for free, it was my only viable option. How could I pay for an apartment at home and an apartment in New York, living expenses and the like while working for free? What?

  14. Lynn says:

    “Young people, it is not your fault. Speak out. Fight back. Bankrupt the prestige economy.”

    Um, how? I feel like the only person I’m going to bankrupt is myself.

    • Eva says:

      I don’t know. It’s easy enough to say, but I’m wondering the same thing. An internship in NYC in fashion would help me immensely, but I would have to save for three years to afford to live, work like a dog, and yet earn no money. I keep being told ‘your time is worth money, don’t accept anything less than someone who understands that.’ Okay, that’s great, but there’s hundreds of similarly qualified people who will do the work for free. Why fight with me and waste their money, when there are people who would pay for the same opportunity? As much as I agree with this article, I am in this situation and I can’t think of a practical solution to save my life.

      • LW says:

        ^ THIS. Times a hundred. I feel like I have to save up income at my day job so I can take off time to work for free. whaaaaaa?

  15. Eupraxsophy says:

    Reblogged this on Sarvodaya and commented:
    As I’ve stated in a previous post, there’s nothing wrong with internships conceptually, just with the way they’ve been systematically abused.

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  17. Scott says:

    This is dumb. I grew up food stamps and I haven’t taken an unpaid internship in my life or have any student debt.

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  19. Well said. Nothing new, but I am glad to see this being said at last. The court ruling in favor of justice was a hugely gratifying win for truth, justice and the (actual) American way, though it won’t be likely to change anything significant. This has been going on since I was in grade school, and I expect it will continue after I am in my grave (which may be soon, if I don’t get a job)

    Glacial rate of change is still change. Keep at it, as this is definitely a “the good fight.”

  20. Nathan Ehrmann says:

    I completely agree with this. I was a high school teacher from 2008-2010, and I felt bad for the world that these kids were going out into.

    That being said, I have to give a huge shout out to the company I work for, Accruent. With no previous experience, they were willing to hire me full-time based on my potential and have since provided endless opportunities for gaining knowledge that will make me more valuable in the technology industry. I think they set a great example, and I hope they are recognized for it.

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  22. Amber Taylor says:

    This concept inspired me to make an infographic… you might appreciate it.

    http://ambariffic.com/2013/07/27/game-socioeconomic-disparity/

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  46. Julie says:

    Sarah– this is some of the smartest, most well thought out commentary I’ve seen on the subject! I was wondering why the Huffington Post has resorted to copy-and-pasting from Miley Cyrus’s twitter (turns out they don’t hire really journalists anymore, but succumb to “hiring” free labor) . I was wondering why so many of my friends who are recent graduates with tons of unpaid internships were jobless and living unhappily at home. I wondered why my Ivy League education seemed not to guarantee me or my friends jobs unless we had well-connected parents who would halt the interview process for us and lodge their foot into the only door that even they could open for us. I wondered, most of all, why I had been so sorely lied to about this my entire life. I wondered why my parents told me that I had to do well in school in order to get a good job, when the only people I saw getting good jobs were friends who didn’t do well is school, but simply got dealt a better financial hand in life than I did. Now I have answers. Thank you so much!

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  48. Bella says:

    the problem now after the government shutdown just adds to this. No money, no work. what do they want us to do ? Sell drugs to make a living? Not to mention the CIA and FBI still owe blacks an apology for dumping drugs in our neighborhood long ago. But right now, I am just really depressed looking at America and living in California. No work and no pay = no food and no life. What are we going to do about this? No, I mean seriously do about this. Someone needs to hack all those RICH ACCOUNTS and go ROBIN HOOD. and I am serious, if I had the money to pay someone to do it, I would. Just to see the look on the big banks and corporations faces since Romney believes they are people. The American Dream is dead. DEAD! roadkill, overkill DEAD. this is what a failing and falling empire looks like from the inside out. God Help US

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  51. jd says:

    I’m old enough to remember when the “help wanted” newspaper ads were full of File Clerk and Clerk Typist jobs, no experience necessary. These were for large companies, like Prentice-Hall publishing, etc. They’d teach you their filing system or their office procedure. They’d post job openings on the company bulletin board. They’d pay your college tuition. It was possible, if you were a white male, half-way intelligent and could smile and survive office politics, to rise through the ranks and earn a corner office somewhere. This was in the mid to late 1970s. As a matter of fact, in large companies all over the U.S., there are men in their late 50s/early 60s who are department heads, middle and upper management, making excellent wages. They all started in the 1970s with entry-level no experience necessary jobs.

  52. jd says:

    More memories: Late 1980, early 1981. I was working temp jobs. I took a temporary data entry job for a major corporation in NJ. There was a bulletin board in one of the break rooms full of job openings for copywriters and sales assistants. There was a large cafeteria providing free breakfast and lunch to all employees. I’ll say it again: Free breakfast and lunch. Everyone was relaxed and happy, perfect strangers would say hi to me in the hallways. I worked there for one month doing simple data entry, and made a decent salary. If I hadn’t been the creative type/aspiring novelist who was too restless for corporate work, I might be a well-compensated guy in a suit with some money in the bank. Instead, I drifted from one crappy commercial graphics job to another. I always thought things would stay the way they were, with lots of opportunities for easy, well-paying office work. It all changed when Reagan came in. By the late 1980s, all employees were terrified, there were layoffs in places that had never seen layoffs before, and wages were sinking.

    • koenigal86 says:

      Wow! I’ve heard similar comments here in Britain about temping in the 1970s or ’80s. Or amongst some graduates even in the early 2000s they apparently got offered steady office work by temp agencies after walking in off the street, or going through newspapers full of ads for office work (I’m 26 so can dimly remember long lists of job adverts before jobsites).

      They now tend to build up vast databases, use online databases and keywords and fob off and ignore everyone else apart from a tiny percentage “on their books” – many agencies are now behind gatekeepers or upstairs in office buildings too to keep out walk-ins. Seems unimaginable now, the past really is a different country.

  53. K2 says:

    This unfortunately is nothing new. I had the same thing happen to me in 1974. It derailed my career in that field and relegated me to low paying jobs for quite some time. I wish I had a solution . I truly feel your pain.

    I chalk it up to corporate greed. They do it because they CAN. And it really is SHAMEFUL!

  54. Zia says:

    Another issue to consider (I’m not sure if this was covered in the comments) is that while internships are indeed great experiences, a lot of companies and organizations don’t count them as such. I have come across several job postings where the company specifies that internships are not considered to be part of the experience requirement. So while a lot of interns become what some call ‘serial’ interns just to fill the experience gap, there is no guarantee that those months (sometimes a whole year) will count towards the experience requirement.

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