IN DEFENSE OF INTERNSHIPS. I'm going to break with Garance here -- Anya Kamenetz's op-ed didn't make much sense to me. Her basic point is simple: Internships are a $124 million subsidy to corporate America. Well, maybe. But first you have to figure out how many internships are actually in "corporate America." The American Prospect, The Nation, the AFL-CIO, the Center for American Progress, the ACLU, People for the American Way, and all the other usual suspects have robust intern programs which allow them to train and try out kids they can't necessarily hire. Are they who we're thinking of when we say "corporate America"?
Indeed, corporate America doesn't really need the free labor. I'm sure they appreciate it, but they could hire their own grunts. Could the non-profits of the world? That's less clear. It was The Washington Monthly's internship that channeled me into writing rather than law school (I am eternally grateful). Kamenetz also blames internships for the decline of unions, wondering how "twentysomethings [are] ever going to win back health benefits and pension plans when they learn to be grateful to work for nothing?" Twentysomethings are perfectly aware that they need health care (as I wrote today over at Campus Progress), internships tend to come while they're covered by their parents' or schools' plans. This is strange logic in any case -- it's like bemoaning that service workers will never want higher wages once they've applied for poorly paying positions. Indeed, I'd guess the kids getting internships are far likelier to work in professions where they have both health coverage and pensions. Which brings us to another hole here -- the professions that most need to be organized and are proving most resilient against union efforts are in the service industry, and no one I know is doing a summer bagging internship at Wal-Mart.
Meanwhile, Kamenetz also says that "[l]ong hours on your feet waiting tables may not be particularly edifying, but they teach you that work is a routine of obligation, relieved by external reward, where you contribute value to a larger enterprise." Ugh. This appears to be the base of her criticism -- work isn't, or shouldn't be, fun. Internships are inherently frivolous and don't properly prepare participants for the lifetime of drudgery ahead. Kamenetz works at The Village Voice, her husband works, or at least worked, for Google. Save for The American Prospect, I can hardly think of two more enjoyable employers. It's all well and good for her to condemn her classmates for seeking out jobs they love, but those who won't end up in such enterprises will have plenty of time to experience the character-building benefits of waiting tables. For now, their attempts to gain some experience in fields that don't, or can't, hire summering young 'uns should be supported. Indeed, my response to the only point of hers I found compelling -- that internships favor rich kids -- is that we subsidize, or at least make tax deductible, such summers, not that we tear down the whole institution.