NEW YORK--In college, it is said, you learn the most about life outside of class. Working to pay my tuition gave me a first-rate education in the American class structure.
Every student who attends a given university meets its standards for grades and test scores, but they fall into categories with distinctly different opportunities for success: the rich and the poor. When a rich kid finds himself with a few extra hours to kill, he can volunteer in his community, crusade for a political cause, or test the limits of his drinking capacity. If he's ambitious, he can pick up valuable business contacts and work experience as an intern.
Students from poor families, on the other hand, can't afford to work for free. They choose jobs based on pay and hours. I drove a taxi and drove a forklift, unionized gigs that did little for my resume but kept the bursar at bay. A classmate I dated (we'll call her "Karen") shared my goal of breaking into journalism. Because her parents were loaded, she accepted an unpaid internship at The New York Times. "The work is beside the point," Karen said. "I make copies and run out to get sandwiches. But I get the chance to suck up to editors." It worked. The paper hired her as a reporter straight out of college, minus the typically required journalism degree.
Mark Oldman, coauthor of The Internship Bible and cofounder of the career counseling company Vault, Inc., says that for college graduates, internships are now a prerequisite for a shot at a good entry-level job. About 80 percent of all graduating seniors, he says, have worked as an intern--most of them unpaid. And the National Association of Colleges and Employers estimates that 38 percent of interns eventually get hired full-time. "It used to be that internships used to be a useful enhancement to one's résumé," observes Oldman. "Now it's universally perceived as an essential stepping stone to career success."
In a reflection of the topsy-turvy truism that those who can afford to pay the most get everything for free, the best-off corporate and government employers hire the most elite slave laborers. "The more glamorous an internship, the less likely it is paid," Oldman says. Students from privileged backgrounds, who already enjoy the advantages of wealth and well-connected parents, can afford to take unpaid internships working class kids can't, further enhancing their chances after an already formidable head start in life. ABC News correspondent Cokie Roberts spoke out about the problem at a meeting of Congressional interns, none of whom get paid. "By setting up unpaid internship programs, it seems to me that without completely recognizing it, it sets up a system where you are making it ever more difficult for people who don't have economic advantages to catch up," she said.
Not only does the unpaid internship system create an economic litmus test that excludes working class students from opportunities to make valuable connections, it exploits those who seem to benefit from it. Labor Department rules governing internships prohibit employers from using interns to do work that would normally be performed by paid employees, but it belies common sense to believe that such practices aren't routine. Labor lawyer John Richard Carrigan believes that illegal internships are an open secret: "You can't [legally] bring an intern in and have him do photocopying and an endless number of menial tasks that an enthusiastic gopher would perform." Yet, he says, it's common practice.
Publishing houses use unpaid interns to edit manuscripts and make photocopies; those tasks would have to be undertaken by a paid worker if a 20-year-old gofer wasn't available. Many radio stations and music companies rely on armies of unpaid workers--er, interns. Theoretically, unpaid internships are equivalent to class at a vocational school. But in reality, the government does nothing to ensure that employers treat interns differently than temps.
The bottom line is simple: a hard day's work deserves a fair day's pay. Unpaid internships drag down wages for everyone. And they force young men and women to choose between being used or getting left out. One hundred forty years have passed since the Emancipation Proclamation outlawed forcing human beings to work for nothing. Congress should close the slave labor loophole.
What happened to my friend Karen? She quit her prestigious job at the Times after about a year. "It was a depressing place to work," she explained as she prepared an application for medical school. I wonder how she would have felt about the $6-an-hour telemarketing job I held at the time.
Ted Rall is the author of two new books, Wake Up, You're Liberal!: How We Can Take America Back From the Right and Generalissimo El Busho: Essays and Cartoons on the Bush Years. Ordering information is available at amazon.com.
Copyright 2004 Ted Rall
Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate/Ted Rall
Ted Rall online: www.rall.com