I’m so old that when I had a college internship, I actually got paid for it. And then, the next year, instead of having another internship, I got a job. Because in the old days, that was the path of the intern. Today’s intern path appears to curve in on itself, and the only hope for an actual job on that path is to do so many internships that you achieve a sort of momentum that eventually lets you hit escape velocity and launch yourself into the world of actual paying employment. I think I like the way it used to work better.
What bothers me about unpaid internships is not fundamentally that they are unpaid (although that really isn’t a good thing), but that the purpose of internships seems to have changed in an uncomfortable way: it’s gone from a way to train students in practical real-world application of skills they’ve learned in college to a way to plug, for free, actual skill gaps in one’s work force. I don’t doubt interns learn something in the latter scenario, but what I suspect companies learn is that there’s little point in hiring for certain roles and tasks because there’s always a new crop of interns. Thus begins a baseline expectation for business that some labor is always meant to be free, and so long as they give themselves legal/moral cover by calling that work an “internship,” there’s no reason not to exploit it.
And while I admit that I can see there is some appeal to this idea — I wouldn’t mind having a college-age lackey I could boss around and make clean my house and fecth me my Coke Zeros, all for free, in the guise of them being an “intern” for a bestselling, Hugo-winning writer — I don’t think it’s the correct thing to do. Internships are work; work should be paid for. Internships train workers; they should not be used to replace them. And just because you can get a 21-year-old terrified that his/her college resume is too light to work for free on the dubious assurance of course credit and/or a job reference, doesn’t mean you should. Pay the poor kid something, why don’t you.
I know, I know. Getting paid for work is very 20th century. Call me a relic.