Why unpaid internships are a raw deal for everyone

Thirty-five hours a week. Not payed. I wish I was surprised when I see offers like this.

As a Mainer resident who attended a state university and now lives in the great (for me) city of Boston, I feel a graduate program is necessary to bridge a skills and status gap resulting from my background. But unpaid internship offers frequently come via email blasts from my graduate publishing program, boasting of opportunities to do something for myself.

As I sign my life to more and more student loans, working as hard as I can to pay them off, it’s unnerving to face an industry that doesn’t pay me for my work. I am intimidated by an industry that says my work will only gain experience and connections. Every intern knows the ephemeral value of these earnings. While money translates directly into heat, food, transportation, stability, and legitimacy, gaining experience and making connections are vague goals that don’t necessarily lead to careers.

No industry is above politics, and while politicians debate unemployment, unpaid internships are emerging as an odd stepchild. An entry appears on our resume, but are we employed? We work, but is that work enough to earn a salary? The answers are as uncomfortable as they are clear. There is no bigger wage gap than the one between nothing and something; there is no more stark unemployment than that of working without pay.

As students go deeper and deeper into debt, as salaries shrink and dissipate altogether, young people need an ever-increasing amount of wealth to overcome this pit of unpaid work. Without family money, without living in an area with good jobs and good schools, the opportunity to build up enough capital to bypass the need for paychecks becomes nearly impossible.

The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division requires that workers be paid at least the minimum wage, as long as they are not apprentices in programs that do not displace jobs and do not benefit the employer. These days, it seems, most unpaid internships should be illegal, yet in recent decades they have become the model for entry into many major industries. Unpaid internships have thrived in this legal twilight between outdated laws and unfunded enforcement.

School approval does not redeem unpaid internships; If anything, it makes them worse. Course credit does nothing to obviate the illegality of unpaid internships and only casts a gloss of legitimacy. Credit, after all, is never given, but paid for. If we were to see interns as workers as well as students and adults, we would see them paying to work not once but twice: once for living and once for credit.

As court cases are waged over back wages, discussion of interns’ rights is delayed and the likelihood of using unpaid interns increases, but even as the law is shaken in various courts, the moral, political and economic consequences of unpaid internships, for interns and the industries that use them, remain.

I want to work in publishing because it is the business of articulating and distributing ideas, sometimes innovative, sometimes disruptive, sometimes clarifying. All I am proposing is a moment of clarity: please take a step back and reconsider what unpaid internships mean. They cheapen editorial work: figuratively, in the sense that a day’s hard work no longer means a day’s pay, and literally, in the sense that zero pay forces a race to the bottom that excludes everyone except the wealthiest and most fortunate.

When entry to work in publishing is based on affordability rather than talent, passion, creativity, or perspective, the field inevitably shrinks. Until the publishing industry can collectively decide, both financially and in principle, to support its future, I fear that the stubborn homogeneity of its workforce will leave it unprepared for a world of ever-changing markets, technologies, and people.

As a young worker in a precarious economy, passionate yet anxious, ambitious yet scared, all I ask is reciprocity. The internship paradigm has reoriented us to think that only I should invest in myself, that only I, or my family, should have money before it can be salable, worthwhile. Claims like these, especially from someone in the millennial generation, tend to seem legitimate. All I want, though, is what generations before the internship craze have gotten: fair treatment. I want to work for you. Welcome me, train me, pay me and I promise that if you give me, if you give us, a chance, the investment will be worth it. The bottom line, literally, is that if our work is worth doing, we deserve to be paid for it.

Nicholas Moore is a publishing graduate student in Boston who aspires to work in acquisitions.

A version of this article appeared in the 05/30/2016 issue of weekly editors under the title: Unpaid Internships

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