Why shouldn’t unpaid interns do scut work?
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.”
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?