The Corporate Social Irresponsibility of the Internship Phenomenon

“This country was built by unpaid interns. And in exchange, I assume they got college credit.”— Stephen Colbert

All over the U.S. — and abroad — college students are packing up their belongings, vacating student digs and heading out in droves to fill thousands of summer internships. Most internships are unpaid and many entail working long hours. In return, the students are expecting to learn something about the careers they want to pursue, make valuable contacts, and get some solid experience under their belt.

At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen.

But all too many will be sorely disappointed. Instead, they will find themselves greeting customers or packing boxes (retail), stuffing envelopes (nonprofits), carrying messages (government), running to get coffee and snacks for the boss (anywhere), or doing a myriad of other unskilled, menial tasks. What they won’t be doing is working on projects that will deepen their knowledge.

At best, they’ll find themselves endlessly updating the company Twitter and Facebook accounts — because, of course, “all” young people are social media experts, aren’t they? — without a shred of mentoring. Instead of teaching the intern something new, the company or organization will be exploiting skills they already have.

It’s a “highly competitive race to the bottom of the corporate ladder,” according to ex-intern and now author Ross Perlin. His newly published book INTERN NATION (read an excerpt here) is a long-overdue exposé of the practice, which, he says, is changing the face of labor. (He also wrote a recent op ed about the issue in the New York Times.)

Perlin says unpaid internships that fail to teach any skills are becoming the norm, displacing paid workers and subjecting interns to flagrant exploitation — including sexual harassment and dangerous working conditions. Universities are complicit, raking in fees for academic credit. It’s illegal — and it’s changing the way we view the right of workers to a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.  

The scope of the problem is huge: between 1 to 2 million internships each year, with 75% of students from four year colleges just in the U.S. performing at least one internship before graduating. “You see internships across the white collar world in just about every industry, every sector, firms of all shapes and sizes, for-profit, nonprofit, government. And now…you’re seeing internships spreading across the developed world and even into the major cities of the developing world,” Perlin told me in an interview.

The problem is worst in the so-called “glamour” fields: journalism, the nonprofit world, government, the arts and entertainment — the very areas with the most influence on our culture and social policy. These are where the competition is highest and internships are the least likely to be paid.

And because they are unpaid, only those with money can afford to take them. That’s leading to a pernicious class bias, unfairly disadvantaging talented job aspirants from the middle and working classes. Perlin links the practice to the widening social inequality in America.

In my own field, journalism, time was that a smart, working class kid with a high school education could go to work for his local daily newspaper and work his way up to become an investigative reporter (think Pete Hamill). But no more.

To even have the promise of getting your foot in the door of the newsroom, you have to snag a series of highly competitive internships, spending months, if not years, working for no money (and then, if lucky, as a freelancer with no job security or benefits) in internships that are often only obtainable by those with connections. Less affluent hopefuls with families, the rent to pay, and no old boys’ network to massage need not apply. “It represents a serious threat to meritocratic principles, to ideas of fairness that we have about how our society works,” Perlin told me.

Firms taking on unpaid interns risk flouting the law. And vast numbers of them do, whether they know it or not. According to U.S. federal law, internships must fulfill several rules in order to be exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act covering regular workers (but not for government interns! In a flagrant exhibition of self-entitlement, Congress specifically exempted its own interns from FLSA protection.) Among the conditions are the following:

• The training is for the benefit of the trainee;
• The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation;
• The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded.

In other words, the internship must strictly be for the benefit of the intern, even when that may go against the needs of the employer. Otherwise, you’d better pay the intern like any other worker doing their job.

Increasingly, employers are using unpaid interns to replace workers with paid jobs. And the problem goes beyond unpaid internships. At Disney, which has one of the most highly sought-after and competitive internship programs in the world, interns who are paid the minimum wage, without benefits, are taking over the jobs of well-paid, benefitted unionized workers.

What does it mean when the formative experience of work is that you don’t get paid for it and have no security, benefits or legal protections? It means that you are less likely to respect or even know about labor rights. Longstanding ideas of the responsibility of employers to workers fall out of the mainstream, especially when those fields that are the most influential are the ones most rife with unpaid internships – media, entertainment, nonprofits and government. “These are the opinion makers of the future, the people who are shaping our society and policy,” Perlin says.

What’s the cost of this burgeoning of unpaid labor? For one, it is a drag on wages and living standards. It may not be coincidental that the U.S., the epicenter of the intern phenomenon, has the lowest wages of any developed nation.

And the impact could stall hopes for an upsurge in living-wage “green jobs.” Perlin says they are particularly threatened, with the likes of Americorps and Citiyear volunteers taking jobs that should be lifting up the hopes and incomes of poor Americans in disadvantaged, overwhelmingly nonwhite communities.

The internship phenomenon represents an abdication of responsibility toward workers on the part of employers — some of whom tout their CSR bona fides when it comes to workers further up the supply chain in developing countries, but fail to notice the ugly exploitation of interns in their own corporate offices.

But the problem is much greater than internships. They are but the first smear in a spreading stain of unbenefitted contingent labor that is weakening the security of trained professionals everywhere. Perlin writes, “Some 30% of the American workforce, comprising almost 40 million individuals, is involved in contingent, nonstandard employment arrangements.”

(Among them are adjunct “professors”, who now teach some 47% of college classes for sub-minimum wages, no benefits and no job security. Some of their students will no doubt get their first experience of our lowered standards of professional remuneration in their summer internships – and then go on the join the underprivileged ranks of adjunct faculty. Watch this video by one of them to get a flavor of the problem.)

It may be one reason why the U.S. has the lowest wages of any developed country. It’s a poor example for the richest country to set for the rest of the world. But the worst irony is, at the same time that NGOs, forward-thinking media and enlightened corporate officers promote CSR and ESG values, they often harbor the corrosive poison of hypocrisy within their very own corridors, in the way they treat the unpaid intern bringing them that skinny latte from the corner deli. Either pay her – or give her the mentorship she deserves.

Originally posted on CSRwire

Francesca Rheannon is an award-winning journalist and managing editor for CSRwire’s blog, Talkback.

  • Exploiting interns just because you can is indeed shameful and the degradation of labour rights in general is distressing. But I’m worried about a bigger question for the forward-thinking ESG and CSR-oriented bunch: What does it mean if our publications, non-profits and research organizations hire (and perhaps in some cases exploit) interns because they can’t afford to properly pay employees? Does society not value the work these organizations do? Do we take it for granted, or do we expect it to be done by other stakeholders? If society does value this work, where should the money be coming from?

  • Jeff Borsato

    Jeff Borsato • This is an important discussion that should be had at every level of both corporate and public entities.

    An internship is ideally an opportunity for someone to gain exposure and experience of a particular industry sector. Much like paying tuition for university we engage in unpaid work as part of broader career goals. Viewed in this way, the question of pay for internships is moot; we do not demand payment from university professors for time spent researching and writing essays.

    The critical issue is what an internship consists of and what value it provides to both student and organization. The typical story interns often tell is one of menial unpaid work with the hope that the right “connections” will one day lead to career advancement.

    It is a sad state of affairs if one need only be a photocopier and errand runner in an organization to gain a foothold in productive, professional careers later in life. This being a possibility, then internships are nothing more than face-time opportunities for junior staff that is no different than cleaning an executive’s pool or walking their dog.

    Reliance on unpaid internships can deter potential recruits who lack the funds to sustain unpaid work for periods sufficient to gain any foothold or industry experience needed later on. The prospect of loosing a skilled future member of your workforce should be enough to consider a different arrangement, one that is inclusive of even the most cash-strapped students and graduates to ensure the depths of any talent pool are fully explored.

    If there is indeed a skills shortage, and if recruitment and retention are top priorities for the mining industry and other sectors, then decision-makers must consider what they can to do invest in future prospects and create a climate that values their potential. Little or no wages to perform menial tasks is the antithesis of a mutually beneficial internship.

  • graham

    The intern payment arguement is the same as the minimum wage argument, the answer is the same as well. A grown up entering into a contract for employement can decide for themselves how they are going to be compensated.

    If the interns don’t like the job they signed up for…quit.

    If you don’t like the amount of money you are being paid…quit.