Intern Affairs

Well, I thought I’d weigh in on the subject of unpaid internships after my blogging colleague Michael Ezra’s recent posts. I disagree with Michael’s stance and believe it is counter productive and quite harmful to young people embarking on careers. Moreover, Michael seems to lump multinationals, investment banks and struggling niche publications together.

Naturally I agree that huge corporations should not use interns as “slave labour” and should at the very least cover reasonable expenses, including travel, but this must be balanced against several considerations:

  1. A business is not a university or college. It has no obligation to transfer skills and experience to third parties, especially if it gains little by doing so.
  2. Interns often have no skills and even those with new qualifications may have no practical experience. Their use to the company is limited. To the extent they are able to add value, if internships became an expense, it would make more sense for the company to simply hire someone with the required skills. This would naturally exclude people with no work experience.
  3. Interns are not in fact slaves – they are free to leave – so if they remain, it must be because they believe they’re benefiting themselves. Typically, for the first half of their internship they will be a liability and then at the midway point they start being useful and by the end of the arrangement the company has broken even.
  4. Small companies may have skilled staff who are happy to pass on their skills but no budget to pay interns (or even their expenses).  However, shadowing a skilled person is educational and it would make no sense to ban such a company for allowing people to take internships with them.

What are the likely consequences of Mr Ezra’s campaign? Well, my guess is that it will promote nepotism and make ‘who you know’ even more important. Why? Well Diva – and any other company watching this saga – will most likely not advertise internships any longer. Instead they will be informally organised through someone who can vouch for the prospective intern. It is the only way to avoid the sort of public tantrum we’ve seen. Poor people are less – not more – likely to get a show in as a result.

Michael Ezra would no doubt argue that, in that case, unpaid internships should be banned and all possible requirements of labour law should be rigorously enforced with regard to positions being openly advertised.

So what if unpaid internships are banned? Well, why shouldn’t companies start charging people ‘formerly known as interns’ for the benefit of shadowing their experienced staff and gaining business insights? This would result in the reverse of what was intended – only the very rich could afford to do ‘internships’ since they’d be called something else and you’d have to pay to do one. Real internships would of course dry up.

A peripheral question would be how to handle de facto geographic discrimination. Would it be acceptable for a company to select one intern over another because their travel expenses were smaller? What if a particular industry were clustered around a certain geographic centre? Would companies have to offer accommodation or accommodation costs to out-of-town interns?

What is needed is not a campaign for paid internships – though these may be encouraged – but for a code of practice. Internships should be for a fixed time. A contract could outline what both parties expect to get out of it.  It should be clear what a successful completion of an internship will lead to: a job offer? a recommendation? a certification? Companies that offered to sign up for this code of practice could might then be recommended by universities and personnel agencies and attract the best sort of intern.

But, at the end of the day, an internship is a voluntary association and a voluntary code of conduct is the most that should be done. Anything else risks reducing the number of opportunities available to people for self development. Were I looking for work in my chosen field and the best opportunity available involved offering to work for free for a set period to prove my worth I would not want any legislators standing in my way supposedly for my own good.

Free people are able to decide if a course of action is in their own interests or not – and to act accordingly.