The president and vice president announced this month that they would pay their interns. The White House issued a press release. I think we were supposed to stand up and cheer.
But the correct response should be collective shame that this job hasn’t been paid for so long, and that many more internships, both in Washington and across the United States, continue to be.
Millions of college students work for money every summer because they need it and their financial aid office tells them to go earn something. Then there are the White House interns from previous administrations, often white, sometimes wealthy and, by the end of the summer, presumably very well connected, polishing their résumés.
Is the problem obvious? I first met in the early 1990s when my interview for a summer internship at Chicago magazine was going well until I found out I would be working for free.
When I started asking questions, what was a financial aid recipient like me supposed to do to earn enough to pay for school? Isn’t all this a form of classism? — the tenor of the meeting took a turn. I did not receive the offer.
Only decades later are we reaching what the White House calls this “significant milestone.” But what happened in the intervening years, and who is responsible for what he did No happened and hasn’t happened yet?
Unpaid internships are distinctively American in many ways. First, there is the basic expectation of paying your dues, rather than being paid for the work you do. Then comes the pressure of gaining experience in what appears to be an “increasingly competitive economy with only a few winners,” as Ross Perlin, the author of “Intern Nation,” told me in an email this week.
Lastly, we have judgments. Condé Nast, known for its magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair, closed its US internship program after former interns sued. A lawsuit brought by former interns who worked on films for Fox has been settled after a federal appeals court ruled that interns are not entitled to payment under federal and state minimum wage laws if they are the “primary payee” of the job. .
This is a strange and shady standard, and few hard-working teenagers will have the gall to prove it in public. Push hard enough on a lawsuit and it becomes part of the public record. Then all future employers will see you suing an employer right there on the first page of Google search results.
For anyone seeking legal clarity on whether an unpaid internship at a for-profit entity is in fact work for which compensation is needed, the Department of Labor offers a seven-part test. It includes whether the training is similar to what interns might receive in a classroom and whether their “work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees” while providing those educational benefits. “Unpaid internships for the public sector and nonprofit charities, where the intern volunteers without expectation of compensation, are generally permitted,” the memo adds.
Amid this softness, employers have seen fit to put people to work in about a million unpaid internships a year, according to an estimate from the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin- Madison.
Of the students who are not scholarship holders, 67 percent would like to be, according to another survey by the center. Having an existing job and not being able to afford low wages were two reasons respondents checked when they reported obstacles to interning, although “not sure how to find an internship” was the most cited reason.
Giving them the $20.76 an hour paid interns earn on average, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, would presumably make it easier to take any position they could find. So what, and who, could make employers pay everyone?
In theory, President Biden could go further by issuing an executive order ending unpaid internships throughout the federal government. White House representatives did not respond to multiple messages asking why he didn’t (and to comment on the expected demographics of his future interns).
Last June, Mr. Biden issued an order directing various agencies to “promote” and “increase” paid internships. It was a beginning, with something resembling an end probably in a few years. There are, among other things, practical budgetary aspects. At the White House, the money for interns comes from newly enacted legislation.
As the government gears grind, the State Department is offering unpaid internships abroad for now. Unless your family lives outside the United States or has a home there, you are potentially hard-pressed for travel and living expenses. Good luck to my financial aid peers, although the department intends to offer only paid places starting next year.
Gatekeepers of various kinds could help reduce the prevalence of these uncompensated positions, if they were willing. There doesn’t seem to be a surge of college or university career counseling offices refusing to post lists of unpaid internships and banning employers who don’t pay their interns.
“Higher education has been complicit,” said Carlos Mark Vera, co-founder and CEO of Pay Our Interns, an advocacy organization that pushed the White House to make its change.
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Corinthian schools. In its largest student loan forgiveness action in history, the Education Department said it would eliminate $5.8 billion owed by 560,000 students who attended Corinthian Colleges, one of the nation’s largest for-profit college chains before after it collapsed in 2015.
Then there is the glaring problem of schools offering course credit for internships.
Schools benefit from this arrangement in two ways, said David C. Yamada, a professor at Suffolk University School of Law in Boston and an expert on internship rules. First, internship-for-credit programs can allow institutions to charge tuition for that credit, even when students are out in the world exercising and don’t need classroom space or an instructor standing in front of them for four months.
Then, it allows a school to say that it is providing valuable career preparation. “If I hear another university invoke the phrase ‘start working,’ I think I’m going to scream,” she said.
The most powerful gatekeeper here might be Handshake, a company you may never have heard of. In the nine years since its founding, more than 650,000 employers have used it to reach students for both internships and entry-level jobs, often through their career offices. Unpaid internships would be greatly diminished if the company refused to post openings for them, thus cutting off the supply of ready labor for employers who want to hire students without compensation. I challenged Handshake to issue this challenge and he refused to do so.
It is saying a lot of the right things, though, and doing at least some of them. “We believe that unpaid internships should not be the norm, and we actively discourage them at Handshake because they often exacerbate inequalities in early careers,” its COO, Jonathan Stull, told me in an emailed statement. .
They are not the norm on the handshake platform. Of the internship listings there this year, 75 percent have been paid, on average, at any given time. Among the employers who work most closely with the company, 99 percent of the internships they post are paid. Handshake also reminds employers that paid internship postings attract 32 more applicants per job than unpaid ones.
Who is not listening to the company? The three worst fields are non-governmental organizations (only 17 percent of internship positions are paid); politics (27 percent); and movies, TV and music (30 percent).
Fourth is journalism, media and publishing, with 32 percent of Handshake’s internship listings in that paid category. Aaaaargh. For what it’s worth, at the New York Times newsroom, our interns and one-year fellows get paid, and fellows get benefits, too. My old friends at Chicago Magazine pay for what they now call their research assistants.
Fixing all this means taking power imbalances into account. Teens don’t have much and need internships on their résumés to get ahead. Schools have some, but there’s a lot about the status quo that works for them. Any Handshake edict would cause it to lose at least a few listings, sending users to LinkedIn or Indeed.com. And the federal and state governments are moving slowly.
Still, shining a big bright light works sometimes. Not long after Condé Nast settled the lawsuit filed by former interns, it began a paid scholarship program that lasted a few years.
Then last year, when concerned employees forced the company to have a lot more conversations about equity and inclusion, it restarted its internship program. The group was Condé Nast’s most diverse collection of interns.
And this time, the company is paying.