About Those Unpaid Internships

The Department of Labor recently ignited debate when it reminded employers of those pesky minimum-wage laws. The move suggested the government is no longer keen on tolerating companies that don't pay their interns and compensate them instead with college credit. It turns out that there's a pretty narrow legal window in which interns don't have to be paid, and a fair number of employers who now offer unpaid gigs probably can't shimmy through it. After years of the "unpaid internship" bullet point finding its way onto more and more college students' resumés, the Labor Department crackdown has spurred a number of questions.

To help shed light on some broader issues behind these concerns, TAP talked to Dalton Conley, a Center for American Progress scholar and dean of social sciences at New York University. He has written about wealth and poverty, social mobility, and social class.

If unpaid internships are a real problem, why has it taken so long for the issue to blow up?

I think it has to do with the cycle of the economy. When the economy's booming, and everybody's got work if they want it anyway, then the fact that some rich kids want to work for free to get ahead isn't seen as a big deal. But when it is, rightly or wrongly, perceived as "these privileged kids are taking away labor-market opportunities from people who really need jobs," when there's high unemployment, I think it becomes more of a mainstream concern.

So it's not just that kids who've landed unpaid internships have done pretty well for themselves and have no reason to complain; it's more that the displaced workers have reason for concern?

I don't really think many workers are being displaced, but I think that's the perception. And I agree, actually, with what you said, [which is] also related to the economy. Students who are graduates who've had an unpaid internship or internships have an expectation with their unpaid work, their "slave labor," so to speak. The way they see it, it should lead to a real job, and maybe that was commonly the case during the boom time when labor was short. But now, and I don't think anyone has statistics on this, there's less likely to be a job at the end of the rainbow. It might engender bitterness among the interns themselves.

So let's say the government is successful with its crackdown on illegally unpaid internships. Aren't financially privileged students -- the kinds of kids whose parents are yachting buddies with the lieutenant governor -- still going to have an easier time snagging a paid gig? Is there any way to compensate for the fact that less-affluent students lack social connections that so often lead privileged students to prestigious internships?

Would Dad's friend in the governor's office or in the executive suite find some extra cash for little Johnny or James to, even if it's minimum wage, spend some time there that summer? Maybe. There'd probably be fewer [internships], but I don't really think that will address the issues you mentioned of social connections and social capital. Some folks have advantage over others. But if you try to correct that, you get to a level of micro-managing where it becomes almost like a joke.

When do you stop, right?

Yeah, it gets to where, for anyone to be in a summer internship, you have to do an ad in the newspaper and vet all resumes, and probably the connected person would still get it, because we trust the people we meet through connections. People don't get hired over the transom, usually. It's not never, but you're certainly at a disadvantage coming over the transom versus through social connections to the employer. That's not going to change, and if we try to change that, we sort of marry bureaucratic controls and hiring policies to the economy at large, and there'd just be an uproar. We can't do that.

But do you think that some sort of effort spearheaded by universities to better monitor what their students are doing -- to at least make sure that internships are in compliance with the law -- would be helpful?

There's a second issue here about whether universities give course credit, in fact charge tuition, for kids to do internships. That's ridiculous to me. And we're often under pressure because the students want that. I know a student who came to me, and she landed an internship at Vogue, and she was so excited because it's her dream job after graduation. She kind of sold herself there as, "You don't even have to pay me. I'll get course credit for this."

Oh my. I'm sure that went over really well with you.

Yeah, she came back, and she wanted me to approve this, and I said, "This is not what you come to a research university for." I don't feel comfortable that she's going to pay NYU tuition to go do something that [she] doesn't really need to be in a university for.

So how'd her internship end up working?

We ended up arranging for her to do all this reading. She basically did a reading course with me and wrote a paper. [I'm] probably not making her very happy with that. But I think that's a scandal when universities or colleges do that.

Yeah, it seems like that compounds problems that already exist as far as inequality goes. I mean, if you can't afford to work for free, you certainly can't afford to shell out money for tuition on top of that.

Right, although, you know, this movement came out of a very progressive view of education from the '60s that life experience is equally valid as classroom experience. And that was meant to help the working class. It just kind of goes to show that things come back to bite you all the time. There are so many unintended consequences.

If we can't ever get rid of inequality completely, won't improving the ratio of paid-to-unpaid internships at least correct the system so that students from humbler backgrounds aren't completely shut out from opportunity?

That's true, yes. But I think -- I'm not sure how many unpaid internships would be replaced by paid ones. I think, mostly, that they'd go away. They're not that valuable to the employer. Then, we'd really be talking about temp work or seasonal work -- and the labor unions get upset about that too. So I'm not sure. These issues, of how inequality reproduces itself, are just so sticky that it's really hard to in advance design something that's going to be robust enough to solve them.

Do you see this debate over whether the Department of Labor should butt in and police unpaid internships fitting in with any broader arguments of the day?

The moment the government wants to step in and do something, it always brings up these more general issues of regulation versus free-market approaches, and whether we need to help vulnerable folks and level the playing field. And that just immediately touches into a whole set of rich veins of ideology [debated in politics today].

So it's probably a debate that's never going to get settled.