Two Cheers for Unpaid Internships

America needs more on-the-job learning, not less.

With unemployment sky-high, working-class wages in long-term stagnation, and climate change spiraling out of control, America’s social reformers have hit upon a strange cause: the plight of the aspiring young professional doing an unpaid internship. A June court ruling that an unpaid intern on the film Black Swan was owed back pay has given the movement substantial momentum, and Labor Day saw the launch of the Fair Pay Campaign, a move to ban unpaid internships in the United States. And indeed, many current internships would seem to violate the rules laid out in the Fair Labor Standards Act, including that the experience be “similar to training which would be given in an educational environment” and that the “employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.”

The abolitionists have this all wrong. The fact that well-designed internship programs offer training that isn’t similar to what you’d get in school is part of what makes them valuable. And the fact that employers benefit from the work of interns is exactly what makes it reasonable to offer internships.

Critics of the unpaid internship seem to assume that tighter regulation would simply mean today’s interns would magically become paid employees. In some cases, that might happen. But many positions would simply be eliminated. More to the point, those positions that were converted into paid ones would likely be given to different people than the unpaid interns of today. There’s a reason there are lots of paid internships and salaried entry-level jobs in the world—you can recruit better people by offering money, so if you have to offer money, you’ll go after those people rather than the current pool of underexperienced students and recent graduates.

Which is to say that banning unpaid internships makes the barriers to entering internship-heavy fields higher, not lower. People who currently have to work without pay to become hirable would instead seek out entirely different fields or else obtain more schooling.

If you’re alarmed by the thought that breaking into, say, journalism or the movie business often requires one or more spells of unpaid work, consider the terrifying rise of the journalism master’s degree. Columbia University, for example, estimates that its nine-month journalism M.A. program will cost more than $50,000. But never fear: They also have a somewhat more expensive journalism M.S. program. Alternatively, consider the raw deals for students at beauty schools or other professions where legal rules mandate that you attend school rather than learn on the job.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly

Since school isn’t work, the tuition at these institutions clearly doesn’t violate labor law. But in terms of the concrete harms attributed to internships—leaving young professionals saddled with debt, erecting a huge barrier to upward mobility for people of modest means—the school option looks much worse. As long as an internship does offer some practical educational value, letting the intern “pay” with menial labor rather than five-figure tuition fees is a great deal. I got an enormous amount of practical career advice in the summer of 2000 doing an internship for Rolling Stone, where my day-to-day responsibilities consisted overwhelmingly of fetching an editor’s coffee and making Xeroxes. The bulk of the work was tedious and annoying, but a handful of substantive assignments and lunchtime conversations with experienced professionals was worth the price of entry.

That’s not to say that every internship should be immune from criticism. Mission-driven nonprofits are open to valid charges of hypocrisy if they’re not willing to align their labor practices with what they preach. Progressive institutions such as The Nation magazine need to make the case to their donors that providing opportunities to young people of modest means should be a priority. And, of course, not every internship that promises to impart useful experience and knowledge does so. That’s lamentable, but it’s no reason to ban anything in particular—many entry-level paid jobs and traditional schooling programs also fall short of their promises. As a matter of practical advice, anyone considering any internship or any school or any job is going to have to do some due diligence.

Yet nobody takes the existence of bad classes as evidence that school as a whole is a scam, and nobody should draw the same inference about internships or on-the-job training either. People shouldn’t take internships where they don’t learn anything useful just as they shouldn’t take classes where they don’t learn. But where educational value is present, there’s nothing wrong with paying in the form of labor rather than paying with money.

If there’s a policy solution fix here, it’s not going to be about banning internships, but about building better bridges between education and the workplace. Washington, D.C., is launching nine new Career Academies, a form of schools within schools that “provide career-specific internships and occupational training integrated with regular high school coursework.” As German firms have begun opening production facilities in the U.S., they’ve partnered with local community colleges to bring a version of German-style apprenticeships to our shores.

The country badly needs more innovation along these lines, not less. Internship critics think stricter enforcement of FLSA standards will fix a labor market problem, but the risk is they’ll exacerbate an education problem instead. Wage regulations are a poor tool for addressing the weak earnings power of inexperienced workers. Bad macroeconomic conditions give employers enormous leverage in the contemporary marketplace, but this is a problem for the Federal Reserve, not the Labor Department. If employers are forced to pay more, workers with no experience will be last in line for jobs and forced to buy more schooling as the only way to improve their qualifications. Young people will be worse off than ever, and all the tuition inflation and quality problems in American higher education exacerbated.

At worst, unpaid internships should be seen as a symptom of broader problems with the economy and school system. At best, smarter and better use of workplace learning should be a big part of the solution.