NYT Op-Ed on Slave Labor, otherwise known as Unpaid Internships

As Winter slowly peels back its rough insurgency against Spring (and what a tough bastard it is), we see peeking over the horizon small hints of Summer and everything it brings – flip-flops, sunshine, warm (see: boiling hot) weather, people with marginal articles of clothing on them, long afternoons by the lake, and – indeed – internships.

FUCKING. Intern. Ships. And, with the economy the way it is and firms the way they are, it’s more likely than not that you progressive kids who choose the summer path of internship will be doing so without receiving even a dime from they who choose to “employ” you (in fact, it’s probably the case that you’re shelling out quite a bit for the whole experience). It’s a bit of a strange system, when you really think about it, even more so when you consider colleges – the very institutions that are supposed to help us get paid at the end of the day – are a vital component of this complex.

This is the principal issue that Ross Perlin, a youngish Stanford-produced semi-intellectual, addresses in a recent op-ed published by the NYT last Saturday.

“Colleges,” writes Perlin, “have turned internships into a prerequisite for the professional world but have neither ensured equal access to these opportunities, nor insisted on fair wages for honest work.” Colleges. What bastards.

Perlin, who apparently has had extensive experience with unpaid internships in the past but is now gainfully employed as a researcher for the Himalayan Languages Project in southwest China (how cool is that?), considers this a small facet of a much larger, much more troubling problem.

The uncritical internship fever on college campuses — not to mention the exploitation of graduate student instructors, adjunct faculty members and support staff — is symptomatic of a broader malaise. Far from being the liberal, pro-labor bastions of popular image, universities are often blind to the realities of work in contemporary America.

Indeed, Perlin’s argument highlights a paradox that hides in the heart of the progressive development and proliferation of tertiary education. Colleges have appeared across time to have grown into a prerequisite for gainful (or not even that, sometimes) employment, rather than an added bonus for the resume of the laborer seeking a job or an aspiring intellectual. The point of college, then, would be to prep the soon-to-be college grad for the working world, and aid in the efforts to eventually secure employment. (This, of course, side-steps or indeed completely ignores the whole “college is for personal development, soul-searching, and talent-cultivation” argument – I’m not saying that isn’t the case, rather that the whole personal development portion can be considered somewhat secondary to the employment-seeking bit)

So, if the college-employment relationship is as such, unpaid internships – which Perlin points out to be a big thing that colleges push for – should be something that has a high rate of return. Presumably.

But is it? I would expect that some unpaid internship experiences do directly lead to some future job opportunity, sometimes. But at what rate? Are those cases rarities? Or rather, is it more the question of how the unpaid internship is experiences, how much the intern puts into it?

I’m no expert, nor am I in the possession of figures or facts or numbers of charts (fuck it, I’m just an unpaid blogger), but from my conversations with other people (alums and students alike) the general theme that emerges is that the unpaid internship experience is often a shot in the dark – it’s an opportunity to get noticed by the firm or the field, but it’s a startling small one with a high fail probability at actually being noticed.

If that’s the case, why the hell are colleges pushing for it? Hell, am I even running with the right assumptions and information? Clue me in, folks.

Again, you can hit up Mr. Perlin’s Op-Ed here, if you haven’t maxed out your free NYT views or stolen somebody’s account yet.

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