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How the Unpaid Internship Became America’s Favorite Corporate Scam

It may seem like a relic of a brutal job market, but it’s not going away—especially after new Trump-era guidelines

There are few facets of modern life more ubiquitous — or more American — than the unpaid internship. After years of rigorous tests and AP classes, students head to college expecting to prove their worth through free labor, taking temporary stabs at pseudo-employment that are assumed stepping stones on the path to a well-paying job.

Corporations benefit from the fantasy that unpaid internships benefit everyone, despite the massive investment often required to work in an expensive city on zero income. Young people, already suffering from financial anxiety, are led to believe unpaid internships are essential components of a comprehensive education that puts ambitious workers on the map long before many of their peers.

In reality, data suggest otherwise: These brief appointments are not only exploitative, they’re largely ineffective. Internships and connections may be helpful to applicants, but it’s more helpful to get paid.

In his 2017 book Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, author Malcolm Harris cites a study showing that college graduates who’d done unpaid internships were less than 2 percent more likely to land a job than those who hadn’t — and when they did, their median salary was actually lower.

The unpaid internship may seem like a relic of a past age, but it’s not going away. In fact, under President Trump, 2018 U.S. Labor Department guidelines opened the doors for companies to avoid paying inexperienced workers.

So how did the professional world come to be clogged with people chomping at the bit to work for free? And how is the merit of uncompensated work still a debate?

The History of the Unpaid Intern

The term “internship” in its modern form can be traced back to a period when the nation was in crisis.

After World War I, it was clear that medical school wasn’t enough to prepare young doctors-in-training to treat unspeakable battlefield gore, so “interns” worked alongside authorized doctors in order to earn their licenses.

The 1947 Supreme Court ruling on Walling vs. Portland Terminal Co. also helped define the parameters of a legal unpaid internship. Leading up to and during World War II, the Portland Terminal Company provided two weeks of free and uncompensated training to anyone who wished to work on railyard crews.

The training period benefited prospective employees while the company itself saw no benefit, because unskilled workers-in-training were more likely to impede work than expedite it — a crucial component of a “legal” internship that persisted until very recently.

Early interns knew they’d have to sacrifice wages in order to learn the skills they’d need to qualify for employment — but they could expect to get paid if they benefited the business. This is no longer true.

For 70 years, established guidelines held that the work, if unpaid, must (among several other conditions) “not provide an immediate advantage to the employer.” The 2018 standards are much more flexible. They do away with the notion that workers who help the company make money should be compensated for it. (An attorney, speaking to Bloomberg, called that idea “ridiculous.”) One key factor now: “the extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees.”

Today’s job market and economy are vastly different from the early-20th-century career climate, but the attitude remains. Swap combat for capitalism and you’ve explained the 21st-century intern: a hyper-efficient, post-recession Swiss Army knife so terrified of failure she’s willing to earn no pay in order to prepare for her future.

Why Is the Internet Talking About This, Anyway?

Even more reliable than the internship itself: those with unearned power going out of their way to defend it.

A heated online debate sparked in early July after a tweet by Adam Grandmaison, better known as Adam22, a hip-hop content mogul and formerly popular podcaster who this year was accused by two women of committing sexual assault. “If you’re complaining about unpaid internships I am 100% sure you aren’t ever gonna make it,” he tweeted. He then clarified that he “[doesn’t] even like having interns” because “it stresses [him] out having to tell people to do work for free.” Nevertheless, Grandmaison said, “if you want a really cool job, you might have to do it for free for a while.”

It matters that an influencer who defends exploitative labor practices has also been accused of sexual misconduct. Grandmaison’s dizzying behavior — he once wrote in a since-deleted blog post, “If statutory rape is was wrong then I didn’t wanna be right” — is part and parcel of his attitude toward unpaid labor; from his perspective, anyone “complaining” about mistreatment is simply ignorant about how the world works.

Grandmaison’s defense of the unpaid internship brings to light even more issues. Insisting that a prospective employee must be willing to work for free in order to prove herself flagrantly ignores factors that can turn an unpaid internship into an impossible prospect. Although a recent study determined that wealthy families don’t necessarily have better access to unpaid internships, in his 2012 book Intern Nation, author Ross Perlin found that structural inequalities prevent those who can’t afford unpaid labor from entering the workforce. Yet somehow, the comforting meritocracy myth persists, conveniently skating over conditions of racial discrimination and structural inequality that have defined America since its inception.

Who Is the Unpaid Intern in 2018?

Because unpaid internships are common in so many disparate industries, it can be difficult to determine what a modern intern actually is. In Kids These Days, Harris writes that unpaid interns are “the inverse” of union workers, who “symbolize the aspects of employment that are on the decline: Members tend to be male, full-time, higher-paid and older.” Unpaid interns, then, represent the sort of work that’s becoming ubiquitous as quickly as it gets more controversial: a unique mix of “low- and high-skill labor” rewarded only with the promise of professional expertise and an edge in the job market. “Unpaid interns,” Harris points out, “are more likely to be young women.”

Universities perpetuate the idea that working for free is valuable by offering school credit for internships. When I attended NYU (I graduated in 2016), the online database for the Wasserman Career Center was littered with listings for unpaid internships, because the conventional wisdom was that this experience would give you an edge as a job applicant.

Experience has taught me that the only way to prepare for the professional world is by practicing getting paid for your labor as early as possible. Get comfortable asking for wages sooner rather than later, and if you do elect to complete an unpaid internship, take care to make sure that your employer is not taking advantage of you. Pay attention to the way that those with power treat you, and promise yourself that you’ll tell someone if you ever feel unsafe.

Unpaid internships may be “going out of style,” but when American laws support corporate greed over labor, it’s unlikely that they’ll disappear anytime soon.