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02 June 2006 Blog Home : June 2006 : Permalink

Lefties Learn Supply & Demand

Lefty lady blogger Majikthise linked a couple of days back to a weird moan about "Internships" complaining that they were mostly unpaid and that this was bad for all sorts of reasons.

In this way, unpaid interns are like illegal immigrants. They create an oversupply of people willing to work for low wages, or in the case of interns, literally nothing. Moreover, a recent survey by Britain's National Union of Journalists found that an influx of unpaid graduates kept wages down and patched up the gaps left by job cuts.

There may be more subtle effects as well. In an information economy, productivity is based on the best people finding the jobs best suited for their talents, and interns interfere with this cultural capitalism. They fly in the face of meritocracy — you must be rich enough to work without pay to get your foot in the door. And they enhance the power of social connections over ability to match people with desirable careers. A 2004 study of business graduates at a large mid-Atlantic university found that the completion of an internship helped people find jobs faster but didn't increase their confidence that those jobs were a good fit.

Although the conclusion makes sense and somewhat undercuts the rest of the moan

A 1998 survey of nearly 700 employers by the Institute on Education and the Economy at Columbia University's Teachers College found: "Compared to unpaid internships, paid placements are strongest on all measures of internship quality. The quality measures are also higher for those firms who intend to hire their interns." This shouldn't be too surprising — getting hired and getting paid are what work, in the real world, is all about.

Majikthise now has a follow up post with a series of links mostly rebutting the underlying premises of the editorial. As a free marketeer I have read the lot with amazement.

Firstly, it truly amazes me that anyone would actually want to work for free and that parents seem willing to support their children as they do so. I thought that since US tertiary education was so expensive it would be a major incentive for students to find the highest paying summer job they could. Certainly that was my main motivation (thanks Madge Networks) and the main motivation for most of my friends at university. Mind you my friends were all compscis, natscis, mathmos, engineers, economists etc. and hence studying subjects that required logic and commonsense not airy fairy regurgitation of BS and we were at Cambridge, which is to say probably smarter than most, but even so it doesn't seem too strange a concept to grasp - all you had to do was look at the bank balance and see the lack of money available for booze and listen to those second years who went on Interrailing trips griping about how they couldn't afford to go down the pub.

Also as versious people have noted it is the "sexy internships" that don't offer pay - in other words the classic law of supply and demand at work. And that clearly also indicates how you put an end to this pernicious practice. Teach your student friends and relatives to demand a salary and see if the internship provider complies. Of course there is a minor problem here in that internships that pay also tend to expect concrete results so maybe there is less tolerance of interns who go out partying every night but then TANSTAAFL - "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch" - and related concepts are good principle for young people to get their head around.

Thirdly, as also noted by Majikthise, a significant number of the offerers of the unpaid internships are "progressive" non-profit organizations.

The fact that so many progressive organizations rely on unpaid interns is especially troubling. These organizations should embrace a living wage for interns and entry-level staffers as a matter of principle.

First off, it's hypocritical for progressive groups to preach social change but practice exclusion. Moreover, elitist recruiting strategies are short-sighted if your goal is helping the disadvantaged. What percentage of people who write white papers on the welfare system have ever been on welfare? I'm not saying that you need personal experience in order to write policy. However, fresh ideas and diverse perspectives are the lifeblood of progressive policy and alternative media. So, progressive groups have a strong long-term incentive to recruit from a broad cross-section of society.

It's easy to say that a non-profit can't afford to pay its interns. Money will always be tight, but that fact of life never absolves decision-makers of responsibility for setting priorities. Progressive organizations should embrace living wages for interns and entry-level staff a goal, for their own good.

I agree with the whole of this and I hate the hypocrisy of it; "Progressive" non-profits who offer unpaid internships are in fact exploiting their workers in precisely the way that they get upset about when evil capitalists do the same thing. If anyone wonders why many of the downtrodden seem to prefer "non-progressive" alternatives such as local churches then this could well be why. It is very hard to identify the real problems of the downtrodden if you have never had to struggle.

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin