Friday, June 02, 2006

Unpaid interns.

Anya Kamenetz's NYT op-ed about internships has been much-discussed in the blogosphere, perhaps because if there's anything bloggers are well qualified to discuss, it is work without pay. What I can't figure out is why Kamenetz thinks labor markets are failing. She argues:
Internships have opportunity costs, including lost wages and the sorts of experiences that come from real jobs (since "internships are not jobs, only simulations," and "fake jobs are not the best preparation for real jobs").
OK, but is there any reason to think that prospective interns aren't evaluating the costs and benefits well?
"[I]nternships promote overidentification with employers," since interns persuade themselves that they're happy to justify to themselves their lack of pay.
If so, what's the harm? Most internships don't last long, and then the interns go on to other things.
Interns "create an oversupply of people willing to work for low wages, or in the case of interns, literally nothing."
Since Kamenetz previously argued that internships are "fake jobs," not "real jobs," this doesn't follow. From my limited experience, I happen to agree that most interns can't do the work that other employees will do. They aren't around long enough, and they don't have the experience. This suggests that they're being paid what they're worth. Indeed, if employers could use interns to generate more revenue, one would expect employers to offer to pay them commensurately. This is how wages are usually set, and Kamenetz offers no reason to think that the labor market is failing here.

As an example, think of summer associates at large law firms, who are paid extravagently even though firms struggle -- to say the least -- to bill clients for the work they generate. Summer associates simply cannot substitute for young lawyers, for several reasons. Firms pay summer associates under these circumstances in the hopes that they'll return after they graduate.

There are paid interns, and unpaid interns. Why do some employers decline to pay their interns? Because they can. Why can they?
Internships fly in the face of meritocracy — you must be rich enough to work without pay to get your foot in the door.
If interns don't warrant wages because they don't generate economic returns, then it's harder to argue that they merit pay. As with education generally, it costs something to prepare people to enter the workforce, and there is pervasive inequality in how people get prepared. Fighting this fight over internships seems like an odd choice to me, like closing the barn door on the horse's tail.

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