Justice for the Intern?

I got into a bit of a debate with Best Friend Diva this morning about internships. A guy that I used to intern with is trying to organize former and current interns to push the organization we used to work for, which we will call Nonprofit X, to pay its interns minimum wage. Nonprofit X is popular because of its socially conscious message. Its support comes from liberals to the far left, and if it were to deny interns, who make up about seventy percent of its labor force, a living wage, it would likely garner some bad PR. I think the interns would have some leverage there, but my activist friend who is trying to organize asked me if I thought current interns would support us. I said I wasn’t sure; Nonprofit X is part of a very competitive job sector, and some of the current interns are trying to scale the organizational ranks and become paid staff members. I am not sure that they would be willing to organize while still part of the organization, which would undermine any fledgling movement for minimum wage.

So this morning, while sitting in a doctor’s office waiting area, naturally I started parsing the whole thing over the phone with Diva. I asked what she would do if she were a current intern and former interns asked her to organize for higher pay; would she join them, or keep quiet, even if she agreed with the principle behind the former interns’ requests? Diva pointed out that the entire debate over higher pay for interns, or in some cases any pay at all, caused Conde Nast to shutter their internship program. In Diva’s view (which, disclaimer, she later sort of amended, but I still think it’s an interesting point. Disclaimer 2: She told me to point out that she amended her point. She doesn’t want to look pro-corporate.), young people trying to get their foot in the door in a competitive industry are now being robbed of that opportunity because of the pressure to increase pay for interns. I was interested in Diva’s perspective on this because, in general, she very much believes in the individual’s power for upward social mobility. While she certainly recognizes the societal constraints of race, class, sex and so on—and she kind of hit the jackpot here, because she’s a Black woman from a working-class family—somewhere along the line she was imbued with a deep sense of personal responsibility for her own fate. Maybe that’s plain old American values at work—I don’t know.

So, when I made the oft-cited point that unpaid internships favor young people with disposable income, and that organizing against that system would benefit a wider breadth of ambitious young people in the long run, her response was essentially a paraphrase of Tim Gunn: “Make it work.” She pointed out that she began working at Wendy’s at 16, during high school, so that she could make money and start pursuing her goals. She worked full-time in retail and got internships during college. She landed a job, albeit an entry-level one, in her industry of choice before she even graduated. Now she’s planning on going abroad for graduate school. So, even if the system was not favored toward her, she argued, she still made it work to her advantage.

I could only prove this by pulling a “Sliding Doors” and entering a parallel world, but I can confidently claim that Diva’s ability to intern intermittently through school has helped give her a leg-up in the professional world, as it has for me. The internship at Nonprofit X, in fact, was probably one of my most formative educational experiences. I am about to graduate college and I am not walking. Whenever people ask me why, I point out that my internship at Nonprofit X felt more fitting of a ceremonial exit than my college experience; Nonprofit X was more intellectually and socially fulfilling than most of my classes, and I was able to stay there a year, gaining a deep reservoir of experience in my field and many professional connections. That whole year, I was paid fifteen dollars a day and received no academic credit. That’s probably not legal, and would certainly not be allowed if interns organize against Nonprofit X’s practices.

Though people like me or Diva have certainly benefited from the current system, I think requiring that interns receive academic credit is the least most organizations can do, even though it limits the prospective field. I personally saw this practice at Nonprofit X because I was involved in two intern hiring quarters, and in both quarters my supervisor picked better qualified candidates who had graduate degrees over undergraduate students. So for students in need of job experience, the problem is often twofold: 1) Many internships are only an option if the student has another source of income and 2) The market is so saturated with overqualified candidates with master’s degrees or higher that unless academic credit is required, less experienced individuals will often lose out to more educated candidates. (And without the requisite job experience or connections to get them a gig right out of undergrad, many of those same students go right to grad school and then enter the internship market. And thus, the cycle is perpetuated.) I have to think that overall—for the vast majority of young people in our city who don’t have their parents helping them financially like I do, or don’t have the insane personal drive that Diva does—the internship system is broken. I can’t in good conscience support a system that purports to give young people coveted experience in certain fields, but does not extend that advantage to the populations that need it most. Yes, young people need drive and personal responsibility and hustle. Young people need to “make it work.” But if internships are about upward social mobility, then the responsibility falls on the organization, not just the individual, to enable that.

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