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Apr. 3 2010 - 10:55 am | 765 views | 0 recommendations | 17 comments

Why shouldn’t unpaid interns do scut work?

Railway Post Office Clerks at Work

Image by Smithsonian Institution via Flickr

Yes, I know, the entire summer internship system isn’t fair — poorer students generally can’t afford to spend a summer pouring coffee for a bigshot sans pay, and they probably don’t have the connections to get the gig anyway.  Chalk up another example of life’s inherent unfairness — rich kids make the contacts and get experience to put on their resume, while poor kids sling hash.

Companies and colleges have increasingly been collaborating to at least partially  narrow the  access gap: Increasingly, companies get their interns through college placement offices instead of automatically hiring the son or daughter of the golfing partner.  And maybe this would be a good project for a deep pocketed philanthropist — donate money to  pay a summer stipend to promising but financially disadvantaged students who are offered unpaid internships in their fields.

Okay, got that off my chest.  But now there’s another kerfuffle brewing.  Some people are shocked — SHOCKED — to discover that many summer interns are making coffee and shipping packages and otherwise doing scut work.

The outrage is misplaced.  Criticism one:  the culprit companies are using free labor to avoid hiring paid employees.  That’s probably true, but I doubt it’s particularly widespread.  We are talking about two-month internships.  Companies need people all year.  So at best they’ve saved two months payroll — if the job really needs doing, they have to hire someone in September anyway, and it is doubtful they will routinely fire employees in July only to hire new ones in the fall.  Too expensive in terms of training, severance, etc.

Criticism two: How dare companies get a benefit from internships that are supposed to be educational?  Who knew that in fact it is against the law for companies to do so?

Camille A. Olson, a lawyer based in Chicago who represents many employers, said: “One criterion that is hard to meet and needs updating is that the intern not perform any work to the immediate advantage of the employer. In my experience, many employers agreed to hire interns because there is very strong mutual advantage to both the worker and the employer. There should be a mutual benefit test.”

via Growth of Unpaid Internships May Be Illegal, Officials Say – NYTimes.com.

Whatever happened to doing well by doing good?  Win/win situations are actually against the law? An internship is only educational if the employer gets absolutely no benefit?

It’s ridiculous.  There’s a reason the whole idea of working your way up from the mailroom has been such a long-standing cliche.  The fact is, when you’re making coffee or shipping packages, you are soaking up the ambiance, hearing the conversations, watching the people work, learning the business by observation.  Companies can’t give you substantive work to do — you’re an intern, remember? You don’t yet have the knowledge and experience to serve clients, to sell products.  But if you serve coffee at a marketing meeting, you can learn an awful lot about marketing. And you can figure out early on whether this is indeed a company — or an industry, or even a profession — that you want to devote your eventual (paid) career to.

I used to argue with my mother all the time about her belief that goodness has to hurt.  So if a poor person donates $10 to a charity, that person is good.  But if a rich person donates $10 to a charity, that person is…what? Not good? Bad? Yes, if you donate more than you can afford, maybe you’re a saint — or maybe you’re crazy.  But if you take that $10 and donate it rather than spend it on bottled water,  sorry, i still think the word good applies.

Same with companies. Interns aren’t slave labor — they don’t have to take the job in the first place, and they can leave any time they want. And of course I think they should know exactly what they’re getting into — shame on any company that tells a bright young thing that she will be second chair in litigation, then relegates her to UPS liaison.  But as long as both sides know what’s involved in that summer gig, what’s wrong with a system that lets companies get a minimum benefit from letting  young people  hang out and see whether this is really what they want to do for a living?


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  1. collapse expand

    My objection stems from the fact that an unpaid internship fetching coffee or manning the photocopy machine or whatever is seen as a bigger CV asset than having worked a summer job at Bob’s Mini Putt and All-night Bingo, even if the internship didn’t serve to increase your skills in your chosen field. If the choice is between cash in hand and valuable learning and exposure, fine. You make the decision that your resources will allow you to make (and I hate that we have to offer a caveat re: the middle class bias of internships, health insurance coverage, etc. because those living at or below the poverty line aren’t even on the radar). But if the choice is between earning money that will help fund your education and a summer doing mindless, unrelated and unpaid office grunt work just for the pay-off of being able to add a notch to your resume, well, that’s a whole ‘nother story.

    • collapse expand

      I’m with Claudia on this. Having hired numerous interns, it’s usually a challenge to find relevant work for them – if it’s valuable, you don’t want an intern doing it. So you have them do the tasks that your trained personnel don’t want to do. But in doing so, you introduce them to the vocabulary and thought processes of your industry. Unfortunately you don’t get those working at Bob’s Mini Putt.
      Today’s vanishing information industry jobs require that all participants buy in to the value of the information – that doesn’t come without exposure. If interns need only learn to run when Bob says putt, the businesses they finally work for might be purer, but their wallets would be emptier.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      we have absolutely no disagreement here. I also decree the emphasis that prospective employers put on this kind of thing — although I guess a case can be made that, by choosing to pour coffee for no money rather than tour Europe for the summer, the interns have shown a certain industriousness as well as a keen interest in that particular profession or industry. And the problem may also be the choices that middle class kids make. The problem is not that law firms aren’t paying minimum wage to the college kids pouring coffee.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      there really isnt a choice
      if you want to work at big magazines you must work free first
      no promise on their side of course
      Also insures jobs are given only to ‘people like us’ with trust funds

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    That’s what we got for obama’s trillion dollar stimulus……unpaid intern jobs…..?

  3. collapse expand

    What if these pre-entry level people are not students? Is it still ok to have them hang out and soak up the lingo?
    What happens when that over-full coffee pot spills onto the unpaid intern? Are their medical bills still covered by the non-employer’s insurance?
    If businesses are not taking advantage of this situation, why have we not heard this story for about 12-15 years? Funny this didn’t come up sometime in the last decade when money was flowing freely.
    The quote from Camille A. Olson says that there is a mutual advantage. But apparently there is not enough of an advantage to hire an employee when the intern leaves?
    Give me a break. Work is paid for, intern, mail room, or CEO.

  4. collapse expand

    We pay our interns at ThinkProgress, which is only fair because they basically do what we do :p

    I think it’s fair to pay interns, because the way they live is often having to rely on pretty much having no income. Especially when you’re a huge profitable company you should at least get a living stipend, if nothing glamorous. It’s a social justice matter, especially because you often’ dont’ benefit htat much from an internship (it can vary).

  5. collapse expand

    Claudia, I must disagree with you on this one. In my experience, using unpaid interns is a widespread abuse on a year-round basis for many companies large and small. The more attractive the industry/profession is perceived to be by students, the more common the abuse. I write as the long-time owner of a small marketing, advertising & PR firm that must routinely explain to students that we only take unpaid interns receiving academic credit. In return, we commit to providing a well-rounded introduction to the profession, writing an evaluation, and so forth. They are not expected to fetch coffee, nor do we bill our clients for their time. If an academic intern is good, we may offer them paid part-time work during the following semesters or full-time after they graduate. Interns regularly report to us that they have been used as “slave labor” elsewhere, which is why they often feel the need to do multiple internships to get a real introduction to the profession. To me, if work is being done by individuals at a for-profit business that work should be paid for either in cash or in academic credits. That is what wage and hour laws are all about.

    • collapse expand

      I hear what you’re saying, and I can see both the logic and the morality of it. As far as the academic credit goes, that’s up to the school, not the employer. And yes, in the best of all possible worlds, all interns would get paid, and none would be doing scut work.
      I don’t agree, though, that you don’t learn a lot about the mechanics and culture of an industry/company by just being there. So yeah, I do think you get something out of pouring coffee at meetings. And I do question the ethics of letting interns work on client assignments — or the efficacy of assigning one of your highly paid people to supervise closely enough to make that okay. If you’re training an entry-level employee, sure, but a two or three-month intern? Hmmmm…
      Again, I’d be howling if internship was considered an obligation for graduation, or if interns are told they’ll have substantive work and then are relegated to drudgery. But if all sides know what they are getting into, and it’s all on a strictly voluntary basis, I really don’t have a problem with it.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    I disagree with your assumption that an intern can’t do work other than coffee and the like. Any employer can always find something that is valuable for the employer, but also relevant for the intern. At my company, we always have projects and work that needs to be done, is not urgently mission critical, but can be executed by an intern with a FT employee’s oversight. And we pay the interns because they are delivering something of value.

    And you can find this in any company, large or small. How many nagging projects/tasks do you have that just don’t seem to get done? Don’t you think that should equate to pay?

    Bottom line: you can always find relevant work for an intern and pay for it.

    • collapse expand

      I agree that a company can find relevant work and pay for it. And clearly, that’s the best route. I object to the idea that a company should not be allowed to choosesnot to pay, and a college kid should not be allowed to decide that he/she still wants to spend the summer hanging around and doing scut work. I’ve written some things for free, because I wanted to; other things I write purely for the money. It’s my choice.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    I graduated from Cornell with a degree in child psychology, enough years ago so that all you needed to break into journalism was willingness to starve. I went into business journalism because, in the 60s, the business press was the crusading press, the ones that wrote about environment, race relations, etc. Since then I have worked for Business Week, Chemical Week and, from 1984 through May 2008, BizDay at the New York Times. I remain bored by and ignorant of esoteric financial instruments; I remain fascinated and pretty knowledgeable about management, marketing, environment, all the non-financial aspects of business. But my true passions? Tennis, both playing and watching, and food, both cooking and eating.

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