Modern Slave Labor: Unpaid Internships

Who wouldn’t?!

My one-year subscription to the Wall Street Journal is coming to an end, which has put me in a bit of a funk. Despite what some of you may think, I really enjoy the paper. Its news article are short, concise, and quite accurate. Unlike other third rate news outlets (CNN, Fox News) they actually wait for facts before posting something on its site. And while I’ve enjoyed the newspaper as a source of information, I’ve had a field day berating the op-ed section and its writers. Well since this may be my last for a while, I better make it count.

Former media executive Steve Cohen is an ignorant asshole. Yes, he may have been a successful executive at one point in his life, however on the subject of unpaid internships, yeah – an ignorant asshole. You see, Mr. Cohen writes in this WSJ op-ed that the value of an internship is in the experience gained. Because of this experience, it does not matter that one will not be paid for services completely irrelevant to ones field of study. He is apparently an expert on the subject because he recently graduated New York Law School and in the process “worked” multiple internships, unpaid of course (as did his son at a national magazine – a nice irrelevant fact pointed out in the article). And he has no complaints, because while he spent the majority of his time making copies, the experience was well worth it.

Here’s the problem Steve (can I call you Steve?), you have a lot of money and live a privileged life. You can easily afford to work somewhere for free because apparently you are at a point in your life where you can go back to school, work multiple full-time unpaid internships, and support your son who is also working for free. I’m not trying to take a stab at your successes in life, I’m sure you worked hard and earned every penny, but this does not make you an expert on the inequality of unpaid internships. Sorry, it just doesn’t, not even close as a matter of fact.

First, lets put aside the argument that the experience is the salary – because I agree with this. Proper internships can be invaluable in experience. This is not the problem with unpaid internships, the real problem is the lack of equality. There are students in this world that cannot afford the luxury of accepting an unpaid internship, believe it or not. Some students have to work full time jobs just to get through school, so they cannot possibly afford the time needed to work a full-time, unpaid internship. Now, you may think equality is not that important, I disagree. Equality is important for two reasons 1) if the pool of potential interns opens from those who can work for free to those who can and cannot, then employers can be sure they are getting the best available talent for a given role and 2) those potential interns that could not have worked for free now have an opportunity they could not have obtained otherwise. We live in a country of opportunity, yet if we don’t pay people to perform a job, then we are essentially limiting that opportunity to a certain class of people.

Now, you may make the argument from the employers perspective that they don’t care about the talent of an intern necessarily, because frankly they are only being brought on to perform mundane tasks, like making copies. So why should they care about the talent quality of students? Well, I would compare this to slave labor. Sure, it’s not a perfect comparison; after all the students wouldn’t be performing tasks against their will. However, from the employers perspective, they are gaining a service they would normally have to pay for simply by calling a mundane job an internship. In this case, the employer doesn’t have the interest of the intern at heart, they are merely looking for a way to get a job done at the lowest possible cost.

Ultimately, we can break down the argument into two very simple goals for our country: do we want to be the country of opportunity or a country of maximizing the cost of work?