Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The New Slavery

I read a newspaper article in the New York Times this week about internships.

Don't ask me to link to it. This is a blog! Let's just say I read something and leave it at that.

Well, I've not only read it, but I'm watching it being played out in the lives of the young people I know. Many businesses, nonprofits, museums, galleries, and especially media outlets, are taking advantage of a free pool of motivated labor: college graduates who can't find jobs.

Oh, the internship! What a great way to get experience you can put on your resume! How can it have a downside to work at the Smithsonian Institute as an intern?

Here's the downside. It's uncompensated labor. The job prospects are so dim for educated people that they have become slaves. They are working long hours, stressful jobs ... for free. Not even living expenses. Many, many kinds of businesses are taking advantage of "internships." Why buy the cow?

What's worse is that most of these internships do not lead to compensated employment ... at least not in the intern's chosen field of endeavor. Basically kids are coming out of college, working for free, and then racking up more educational debt in graduate school. Or they're working as interns and then finding a job somewhere else. Like Home Depot.

I had an internship at a newspaper in Baltimore when I was an undergraduate. I was paid minimum wage. On Friday nights I had to take down the scores and highlight notes for about 30 high school football games. Over the telephone. And all the gods forbid I misspell a name! The next day, Saturday afternoon, would be the racetrack results. These also had to be keyed in by hand.

I published one single story in the newspaper during the eight months I worked there. Then I was told that, as a female, I lacked the qualifications to be a sportswriter. So I quit.

If not for that small paycheck I got for my hours, I would have felt royally played.

The saddest part of this is the fact that interns, once their slavery ends, may never be as happy again in a paying gig. Our economy is so sour that they might never find real work in their professions. I never worked a single day as a journalist after my internship ended, and quite honestly I think I would have been a good sportswriter.

It's easy to say that there ought to be a law. But truthfully, the reality is that colleges are graduating too many people, especially in the creative fields. I don't have an answer for what to do here. I just think it's a shame that my friend's daughter is working at the Smithsonian for free ... for a year ... and then she'll be ... out of a slavery. To make room for another slave.

How long can this last?


Debra She Who Seeks said...

We don't have internships here in Canada. I believe they're illegal under our employment laws. I agree with you that unpaid internships are a gross exploitation of the young.

TanteFledermaus said...

I often wonder how we conned people into internships in the first place. "Work like a demon for FREE! You'll never get hired here afterwards, because you've devalued your labor!"

Nooooo, thank you. I'd rather be unemployed. I cost money.

Lucretia said...

I worked as an intern for four months at a museum while getting my master's in Anthropology. For me, it was worth the time and trouble because 1) I got 'paid' 3 units of school credit for it, and 2) I really did learn a lot. My pay was the credits I received, and I felt the exchange was a fair one.

However, what you are talking about here really IS slavery, and I agree with you totally. It's different from 'volunteering' in a BIG way, because volunteers don't expect anything out of it except personal satisfaction. The word 'internship' implies a LOT more that is no longer being offered.

Jennifer said...

I had an internship at a newspaper and it went beautifully. (Though I was features, not sports--maybe that had something to do with it.) At the time I really needed it because I didn't have any decent work experience of any sort.
I got tons of things published and then they hired me part time, and then full time...and then I got laid off because I was last hired/first canned and it was journalism, but still. It worked for me to actually get me into the white collar employment world, and it worked as it should, i.e. led to future employment.

It's a shame that interning, like everything else, doesn't work any more.