The president and vice president announced this month that they would pay their interns. The White House issued a press release. I think we were supposed to stand up and clap.
But the correct answer should be the collective embarrassment that this job has gone unpaid for so long — and that so many other internships, both in Washington and across America, remain so.
Millions of college students work for cash every summer because they need it and their financial aid office tells them to go earn it. Then there are those White House interns from previous administrations — often white, sometimes wealthy and, by summer’s end, presumably very well-connected — polishing their resumes.
Is the problem obvious? It kicked off for me in the early 1990s when my interview for a summer internship at Chicago magazine was going well until I learned I would be working for free.
When I started asking questions – what was a financial aid recipient like me supposed to do to earn enough to pay for school, and isn’t that a form of classism? — the content of the meeting took a turn. I did not receive the offer.
It’s only decades later that we now come to what the White House calls this “milestone.” But what happened in the intervening years, and who is responsible for what made not arrived and has not yet arrived?
Unpaid internships are quintessentially American in many ways. First, there is the basic expectation of paying your dues, rather than being paid for the work you do. Next comes the pressure to gain experience in what appears to be an “ever more competitive economy with only a few winners,” as Ross Perlin, the author of “Intern Nation,” told me in an email. email this week.
Finally, we have trials. Condé Nast, known for its magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair, closed its internship program in the United States after former interns filed a lawsuit. A lawsuit brought by former interns who worked on films for Fox has been settled, after a federal appeals court ruled that interns were not entitled to payment under federal and state laws on minimum wage if they were the “primary beneficiary” of the work.
This is a strange and murky standard, and few striving teenagers will have the nerve to test it in open court. Push hard enough in a lawsuit, and it becomes part of the public record. Then every future employer sees you pursuing an employer right on the first page of your Google search results.
For anyone seeking legal clarity on whether an unpaid internship at a for-profit entity is in fact employment for which compensation is necessary, the Department of Labor offers a seven-part test. This includes whether the training is similar to what interns might get in a classroom and whether their “work complements, rather than replaces, the work of paid employees” while providing these educational benefits. “Unpaid internships for the public sector and nonprofit charitable organizations, where the intern volunteers without expectation of pay, are generally permitted,” the memo adds.
Amid this squishiness, employers have seen fit to put people to work in about a million unpaid internships a year, according to an estimate from the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Among students who are not interns, 67% would like to be, according to another survey from the center. Having an existing job and not being able to afford the low wages were two reasons respondents checked off when reporting barriers to taking up an internship, although “not knowing how to find an internship” was the reason they cited the most.
Handing them the $20.76 an hour paid interns earn on average, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, would likely make it easier to get into any position they could find. So what could make employers pay everyone?
In theory, President Biden could go further by issuing an executive order ending unpaid internships across the federal government. White House officials did not respond to several messages asking why he hadn’t (and to comment on the expected demographics of their future interns).
Last June, Mr. Biden issued an order directing various agencies to “promote” and “increase” paid internships. It was a start, with something like an end likely to be years away. There are, among other things, the practical budgetary aspects. At the White House, the money for interns comes from recently enacted legislation.
As the cogs of government creak, the State Department is offering unpaid internships abroad for now. Unless your family lives outside the United States or has a home there, you are potentially responsible for travel and living expenses. Good luck to my fellow financial aid students, although the department intends to offer fee-only seats starting next year.
Caretakers of all kinds could help reduce the prevalence of these unpaid positions, if they wanted to. There doesn’t seem to be a groundswell of college or university careers offices refusing to post unpaid internship listings and banning employers who don’t pay their interns.
“Higher education has been complicit,” said Carlos Mark Vera, co-founder and executive director of Pay Our Interns, an advocacy organization that lobbied the White House to change.
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Corinthian colleges. In its biggest student loan forgiveness action ever, the Department of Education said it would eliminate $5.8 billion owed by 560,000 students who attended Corinthian Colleges, one of the biggest chains of for-profit universities in the country before its collapse in 2015.
Then there is the glaring problem of schools offering course credit for internships.
Schools benefit from this arrangement in two ways, said David C. Yamada, a professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston and an expert on internship rules. First, credited trainee programs can allow institutions to collect tuition for that credit, even if students train globally and don’t need classroom space or an instructor. standing in front for four months.
Second, it allows a school to say that it provides valuable career preparation. “If I hear another university invoke the phrase ‘Hit the ground running,’ I think I’m going to scream,” he said.
The most powerful gatekeeper here might be Handshake, a company you may never have heard of. In the nine years since its inception, more than 650,000 employers have used it to reach students for both internships and entry-level jobs, often through their careers offices. professional. Unpaid internships would decline quite sharply if the company refused to open them, thus cutting off the supply of ready labor for employers who wish to hire students without pay. I challenged Handshake to throw down that gauntlet, and he refused to do so.
However, it says many of the right things and does at least some of them. “We believe that unpaid internships should not be the norm, and we actively discourage them on Handshake because they often exacerbate early-career inequality,” its chief executive, Jonathan Stull, told me in a statement sent by E-mail.
They are not the norm on the Handshake platform. Of internship offers this year, 75% have been paid, on average, at some point. Among the employers who work most closely with the company, 99% of the internships they offer are paid. Handshake also reminds employers that paid internship offers attract 32 more applicants per job than unpaid offers.
Who doesn’t listen to business? The three worst areas are non-governmental organizations (only 17% of internships are paid); politics (27%); and movies, TV and music (30%).
Fourth is journalism, media and publishing, with 32% of Handshake’s internship listings in this paid category. Aaaaargh. For what it’s worth, in the New York Times newsroom, our interns and year-long fellows get paid, and fellows get benefits, too. My old friends from Chicago magazine pay what they now call their research assistants.
Addressing all of this means addressing power imbalances. Teenagers don’t have much and they need internships on their CV to progress. Schools have them, but there are a lot of things about the status quo that work for them. Any edit from Handshake would cause it to lose at least some listings, sending users to LinkedIn or Indeed.com. And federal and state governments are moving slowly.
Still, shining a big bright light sometimes works. Shortly after Condé Nast settled the lawsuit brought by former interns, it launched a paid fellowship program that lasted a few years.
Then, last year, when concerned employees forced the company to have a lot more conversations about equity and inclusion, it restarted its internship program. The group was Condé Nast’s most diverse collection of interns.
And this time, it’s the company that pays.