Why We Still Haven’t Solved the Unpaid Internship Problem

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Why We Still Haven’t Solved the Unpaid Internship Problem

The President and Vice President announced this month that they would be paying their interns. The White House issued a press release. I think we should stand up and cheer.

But the correct answer should be collective embarrassment that this gig has gone unpaid for so long — and that so many more internships, both in Washington and across America, remain so.

Millions of college students work every summer for money because they need it, and their tax office tells them to make some money. Then there are these White House interns from previous administrations — often white, sometimes wealthy, and probably very well connected by the end of the summer — who brush up on their resumes.

Is the problem obvious? It clicked for me in the early 1990s when my interview for a summer internship at Chicago Magazine was going well until I found out I was working for free.

When I started asking questions – what should a welfare recipient like me do to earn enough to afford school, and isn’t it all a form of class thinking? – The tenor of the meeting changed. I didn’t get the offer.

Only decades later, we are now reaching what the White House calls this “major milestone.” But what happened in the years in between and who is responsible for what hasn’t happened and hasn’t happened yet?

Unpaid internships are quintessentially American in many ways. First, there is the basic expectation that you will pay your dues rather than get paid for your work. Then comes the pressure to gain experience in what appears to be “an increasingly competitive economy with few winners,” as Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation, put it in an email to me this week.

Finally, we have lawsuits. Condé Nast, known for its magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair, suspended its US internship program after former interns sued. A lawsuit brought by former interns who worked on films for Fox was settled after a federal appeals court ruled that interns are not entitled to payment under federal and state minimum wage laws if they are the “principal beneficiary” of the work.

This is a strange and somber standard, and few ambitious teenagers will have the courage to test it in court. Push hard enough in a court case and it becomes part of the public record. Then any prospective employer will see that you are suing an employer right on the first page of your Google search results.

If you are looking for legal clarity as to whether an unpaid internship at a non-profit company is actually an activity that is subject to compensation, the Department of Labor offers a seven-part test. These include whether the training is similar to what interns might receive in a classroom setting and whether their “work complements rather than replaces the work of paid staff” while providing these educational benefits. “Unpaid internships for the public sector and non-profit charities, where the intern volunteers with no expectation of compensation, are generally permitted,” the memo adds.

According to an estimate by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions, employers have seen fit to employ people in about 1 million unpaid internships each year.

Of the students who aren’t interns, 67 percent would like to be, according to another survey by the center. Having an existing job and not being able to afford the low wages were two reasons respondents ticked off when reporting barriers to getting an internship, although “unsure how to find an internship” was the most common reason given was.

Giving them the $20.76 an hour that paid interns make on average, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, would presumably make it easier to take any job they could find. So what – and who – could make employers pay everyone?

In theory, President Biden could go further by issuing an executive order ending unpaid internships across the federal government. White House officials did not respond to several messages asking him why he hadn’t (and for comment on the hoped-for demographics of their future interns).

Last June, Mr. Biden issued an executive order directing various agencies to “encourage” and “increase” paid internships. It was a beginning, with an end that was likely years away. Among other things, there are budgetary aspects. In the White House, the money for the interns comes from newly passed laws.

While the government’s gear levers are crunching, the State Department is initially offering unpaid internships abroad. Unless your family happens to live or have a home outside of the United States, you may have to pay for travel and living expenses. Good luck to my fellow financial aid children, although the department intends to only offer paid places starting next year.

Gatekeepers of various kinds could help reduce the prevalence of these uncompensated positions if they were willing to do so. There seems to be no reason why college or university careers advice centers refuse to post unpaid internship offers and exclude employers who do not pay their interns.

“Higher education was complicit,” said Carlos Mark Vera, co-founder and executive director of Pay Our Interns, an advocacy group that has lobbied the White House for change.

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Corinthian colleges. In its largest student loan forgiveness move yet, the Department of Education said it would pay off $5.8 billion owed by 560,000 students attending Corinthian Colleges, one of the country’s largest for-profit college chains, before it collapsed in 2015.

Then there is the glaring problem of schools offering course credit for internships.

Schools benefit from this rule in two ways, said David C. Yamada, a professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston and an expert on the rules surrounding internships. First, institutes with intern-for-credit programs can collect tuition for those credits even if the students are training in the world and don’t need a classroom or an instructor four months in front.

Then it allows a school to be said to offer valuable career preparation. “If I hear another university invoke the phrase ‘Hit the ground running,’ I think I’ll scream,” he said.

The most powerful gatekeeper here might be Handshake, a company you may not have heard of. In the nine years since its inception, more than 650,000 employers have reached out to students for both internships and entry-level jobs, often through their careers advice centers. Unpaid internships would drop quite sharply if the company refused to post vacancies for them, thereby cutting off available labor for employers who want to hire students without pay. I asked Handshake to throw down that glove and they refused.

However, it means saying a lot of the right things and doing at least some of them. “We believe that unpaid internships should not be the norm and we actively discourage them from working at Handshake because they often exacerbate early career inequalities,” its chief operating officer, Jonathan Stull, told me in an email sent to E -Mail sent statement.

They’re not the norm on Handshake’s platform. Of the internship offers there this year, an average of 75 percent were paid at some point. For those employers who work most closely with the company, 99 percent of the internships they advertise are paid. Handshake also reminds employers that paid internship positions attract 32 more applicants per job than unpaid ones.

Who doesn’t listen to the company? The three worst areas are non-governmental organizations (only 17 percent of internships are paid); politics (27 percent); and films, television and music (30 percent).

Fourth is journalism, media and publishing, with 32 percent of Handshake’s paid internship listings in this category. Aaaargh. For what it’s worth, our New York Times newsroom interns and year-long fellows are paid, and fellows also receive benefits. My old friends at Chicago Magazine pay for what they now call their research assistants.

Fixing all of this means anticipating power imbalances. Teens don’t have much, and they need internships on their resumes to get ahead. Schools have some, but there’s a lot about the status quo that works for them. Any remission of the handshake would result in at least some entries being lost and users being redirected to LinkedIn or Indeed.com. And the federal and state governments are moving slowly.

Still, shining a big bright light sometimes works. Shortly after Condé Nast settled former intern lawsuits, it launched a paid grant program that lasted a few years.

Then, last year, when concerned employees forced the company to have many more conversations about equity and inclusion, it restarted its internship program. The group was Condé Nast’s most diverse gathering of interns of all time.

And this time the company pays.