KAO: Internships exploitative, must be abolished for equality
Column: Left on Red
It is a truth universally acknowledged that any self-respecting college student, in want of gainful employment after graduation, must have done an internship.
Internships are essential in getting experience, we are told, and employers do not want applicants who lack experience. Many entry-level positions now require experience.
This seems unreasonable at first, but we sympathize — how else is management supposed to find qualified candidates? We adapt accordingly, seeking out job fairs and poring over online application portals. When asked at the start of each fall, “What did you do this summer?” we regale our interlocutors with tales of a busy two-and-a-half months as an intern at a corporate or nonprofit outfit.
Our listeners walk away, satisfied they have the acquaintance of a productive unit of human capital. We have a new line on our resumes.
I reject this. In their current configuration, internships are vehicles of exploitation.
Who benefits when entry-level jobs require experience? Who benefits from not having to train entry-level workers because they should already have internships? Who benefits from creating low-paying internships with long hours and poor working conditions? Who benefits from this deliberate precarity?
The bosses. Given their role in facilitating these injustices, internships should not exist.
An appalling 43% of internships at for-profit organizations are unpaid. Though employers are supposed to pay their interns, labor regulations are loose enough so that if an employer can claim the intern is getting more of the benefit from the position than the employer – making the intern not an employee – then the intern can be unpaid.
Considering the surfeit of unpaid internships, it is clear employers do not find it difficult to (mis)classify their interns as non-employees. There are stark parallels with the practices of corporations like Uber, which misclassifies its drivers as independent contractors to avoid paying wages and benefits.
The fact that so many internships are unpaid benefits the wealthy and privileged. Already flush with money, they have the means to devote months of their time without pay, a sacrifice those who are not so affluent cannot afford.
The living costs associated with internships are another area that similarly disadvantage the poor, especially when so many internships are based in expensive cities like New York and Washington, D.C. The common refrain is that unwaged interns are compensated with “experience,” although I have yet to discover a landlord or a supermarket who accepts experience as payment.
Even if an internship does come with a salary, problems remain. While the idea of paying interns their rightful due is gaining traction, the structural role of the internship within the economy is an issue. Capitalists love internships, because they are cheaper than actual jobs, which carry higher costs in wages and benefits.
Interns, on the other hand, do not get health insurance. There is a reason why 61% of so-called entry-level jobs require experience. By demanding experience, bosses force would-be applicants to strike out on their own and gain experience, often by working for little to no pay as an intern.
This creates a vicious cycle where one needs experience to get work but needs work to get experience, an absurd state of affairs that extends even to internships. A prestigious internship can be wildly competitive to land, prefiguring the frenzied competition for actual jobs that follow after graduation.
Bosses love this too. They can slash salaries while having the pick of the applicant pool, which is great for the corporate bottom line.
Once again, the elite stand to gain the most. Besides having significant financial capital, they also have access to significant social capital. They can rely on the old boys’ network and hit up their father’s old college roommate, who is now the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
While others fumble with ancient application portals that require resumes to be entered line-by-line, a single phone call on their behalf places fingers on the scale. In a few weeks, terse rejection emails come through for those not fortunate enough to have nepotism on their side.
For those of us who do not have such connections, meritocratic ideology is the answer to our failure. “You were not good enough.” “You were not a good fit.” Meritocracy glosses over the inequities of capitalism, condemning the unemployed as unworthy.
Things certainly do not have to be this way. Employers could pay their interns a living wage and allow for a sufficient number of entry-level positions that do not require experience. But in the U.S., we have the right to free speech but not the right to work. If you starve to death, that is simply your fault.
I am not saying internships are worthless. They can provide interesting experiences and allow people to try out new things on a limited basis. But that does not excuse their flaws.
Get rid of internships.
Samuel Kao is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in history. His column "Left on Red" runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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