The Economics of Internships

The haves and the have nots are delineated in multiple ways through our polite society here in America. That separation is apparent to a significant degree when it comes to the opportunities available to the folks we are counting on to pull us out of the ditch we’ve found ourselves in after the nuclear winter of sub-prime mortgages and the supposed near collapse of our financial system. They are, of course, our interns.

Intern-ships are seemingly thankless jobs, but they are often a rare golden ticket to a path to highly sought after positions. The issue is that most of these jobs are non-paying, making them un-affordable for those who don’t come from a privileged background. When one must toil through 12-hour days, with tasks ranging from the banal (fetching coffee) to somewhat skilled (fetching data,) it doesn’t leave time to take a second job to support their dream. This creates a very real societal structure that locks out those on the lower rungs of society from pulling themselves up. The American Dream requires more than a little help from friends and a well established and generous family.

Aside from the fact that this practice only allows children of upper middle to upper class families the opportunity to take these coveted jobs, it may even be illegal. In a New York Times article back in April of last year, it was noted that number of unpaid internships had seen a significant rise in recent years, leading the New York labor commissioner to launch an investigation into several firms.

Many of these companies are quite bold. Jezebel, the woman focused vertical of Nick Denton’s Gawker Media network, put out a bat signal for unpaid internships to help launch their upcoming “Book of Jezebel” publication. This set off some chatter on the Tumblr blogging platform where many weighed in with their mostly negative opinions of how Gawker was perpetuating the unfair practice. One user noted how it is exactly the type of behaviour Jezebel seemingly would be looked to be taking a stand against:

“Jezebel should be genuinely upset about this too, b/c anytime there are structural inequalities like this it is women and people of color who feel the effects most of all.”

Is there an answer to bridge these inequities? Businesses have little incentive to comply if the laws are unenforceable. It seems that it’s nearly impossible to enforce these laws because the very interns who take the jobs will not report the firms because they don’t want to make waves that could disrupt their chances with future employers. The system continues because the few who are able to benefit are complicit with the system.

Perhaps the authorities need to randomly send out undercover interns to apply for jobs suspected of these unfair hiring practices. The threat of random applicants who could be an agent in disguise could give employers pause. It is, after all, not only a lost opportunity for someone who needs it more than the well off, but it’s lost taxable income for the fed and the state. The incentive may not be there for the employer to comply but in a country saddled with both federal and state deficits, any drop in the bucket by way of tax revenue can help bridge the gap.

If there were such rules, we all would benefit by having a broader base of well trained young people across the social landscape. In a country that has never had a more striking separation of those at the very top from those struggling to make their way from the very bottom, addressing this inequity couldn’t be more timely.