Unpaid Internships and Power

Because I have always had my eye on academia, there are many things I don’t know about the business world, including the process of getting started as a young person and moving up the ranks.  However, whenever I hear aspiring business-types talk, internships perpetually come up.  Internships seem to be central to the plan of getting experience, getting noticed, and getting on track to a good job.  And the accompanying question is always asked: is the internship paid or unpaid?

Before today, this question never fazed me.  I have always been paid for my internship-like research experiences, but I was not surprised that in some fields, people paid their dues by working for free.  However, a blog entry that I read today completely changed my mind, and not in the direction that the author intended.

Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA franchise the Dallas Mavericks, had an idea to set up some unpaid internships using social media to market his team:

One silver lining of a “great recession” that we are now in is that there are a lot of incredibly talented people without jobs, or who have lost their jobs. I didn’t care if they were 18 years old or 73 years old.  I thought we could assemble a talented group who would enjoy the internships and could also gain valuable experience to add to their resumes.  When the economy opened up, one of two things would hopefully occur.  We were generating revenue from this effort and we could hire them, or they had just built up their resumes and improved their chances of finding a paying job.

Makes sense right ?

Wrong. Enter the US Government.

At first, I was on Cuban’s side.  (Leave aside for the moment the fact that he, a billionaire, is describing others’ unemployment as a silver lining.)  This seems to be an agreement that would be beneficial for both sides, and the unpaid interns would perhaps benefit more, since he described this project as something that wouldn’t bring in cash flow.  He spins it as the meddlesome government telling the intern that they’re better off doing nothing (or flipping burgers) than gaining experience.

He loses me, and convinces me of the other side of the argument, when he presents the government’s restriction on unpaid interns:

no work can be performed that is of any benefit at all to the company.  That is, you can not deliver mail, sort files, file papers, organize a person’s calendar, conduct market research, write reports, watch television shows and report on them, read scripts, schedule interviews, or any other job that assists the employer in any way in running their business.

It all makes sense when you look at it from the company’s side.  They have some work that they want done, but it’s not important enough for any of their current employees to handle.  So they want someone to do it for them for free.  In the name of an “internship,” they can exploit someone who is powerless in their field.

It’s exploitation, pure and simple.  The intern would do the work to get a line on their resume that connects them to Big Powerful Influential Company.  That’s bad enough if you assume that the work done actually provides a valuable learning experience to the intern.  But look at the jobs Cuban lists above.  He’s outraged that the government won’t let him get someone to sort his mail, do his filing, organize his calendar, and other such grunt work FOR FREE?!  That’s just ridiculous.

Then he goes on to say

The main reason that you do not see more lawsuits regarding unpaid internships is that the interns are very unlikely to sue.  In most cases, they fear being blacklisted, as they will undoubtedly need to use the internship as a reference to get any future work.

Oh, it’s okay that they’re being exploited because they’re not complaining, right?  Again, it would be one thing if they’re not complaining because they’re happy for the opportunity.  Still wrong, but you could understand where he might be coming from.  But no, they’re keeping quiet because they fear retribution!

So, let’s recap Cuban’s argument in favor of unpaid interns:

  • Isn’t it great that so many talented people are unemployed?  Maybe I can use this for my gain!
  • Perhaps they will work for free in the name of gaining experience.
  • They can also do the dirty work that would normally be done by “The Assistant to the Secretary’s Secretary.”
  • They don’t complain, so it must be okay.  Oppressed people always speak up, right?  Or maybe they know we’ll blacklist them…

Sorry, Mark, I’m not convinced.

8 Responses to “Unpaid Internships and Power”


  1. 1 David Rosnick September 10, 2009 at 9:43 AM

    Thank you for the post.

    Working at a lefty nonprofit in Washington, I can tell you that unpaid internships abound in DC. However, at CEPR we always pay. Admittedly, our internships do not pay lavishly (particularly given the high cost of living in this city) but they do pay.

    I should mention that one additional reason why we pay our interns is… well… class. Even if we thought it okay to exploit interns, unpaid internships are for people who can afford them. Not everyone can afford to be exploited in the short run, even if it leads to better prospects later on. We do not wish to restrict ourselves to those fortunate few candidates who can afford to be exploited.

  2. 2 excitedstate September 10, 2009 at 12:21 PM

    I agree with your point about class. Not everyone can afford to work for free, and they really are better served in the short term by getting a paying job that doesn’t give “experience.” But they’ll be hurt in the long run by this system.

    That being said, I wonder if the same laws apply to non-profits, since there is probably nothing wrong with having unpaid volunteers. Of course, non-profits can get access to things like AmeriCorps to help reward their volunteers.

  3. 3 Lab Rat September 17, 2009 at 4:22 AM

    I was always a bit worried of the idea of an unpaid internship… I think as much as everything, because it seems to favour the kind of people who can afford to have parents to fund them for a summer.

  4. 4 DrugMonkey September 28, 2009 at 2:02 PM

    I agree that internships are just plain exploitation. Cuban and similar apologists for this ‘system’ need to apply their logic to all past historical situations of worker abuse. that we consider ‘abuse’ because we have regulated and legislated those practices away, that is.

    I think this argument also applies to students working in labs.

  5. 5 Trust Fund Baby September 28, 2009 at 3:32 PM

    When I was that semester at State U., I didn’t go anywhere, most of the other kids were so much better academically than I was.
    But when the semester ended, I could leave them all in the dust, with that great arts internship in NYC my daddy arranged, while they were to actually work to earn tuition money. Oh well. Poor things. (My internship was unfortunately unpaid, as apparently, even with daddy’s help, they somehow figured out that I wasn’t up to work much.) Then, with this experience, and a recommendation from daddy’s friend claiming that my internship work was great, I could even get into a better (more expensive) private college!
    And now I have a job in the arts world, where the main task is to look good. Unfortunately, I never heard from the kids at State U. again, guess they must be working hard in some labs or such. So, hooray for unpaid internships! They keep the riff-raff out of the arts world! And make this country a meritocracy.
    —Trust Fund Baby
    (P.Sp. Meritocracy works for politics, too, see:
    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/31/there-goes-the-meritocracy/ (She had an internship, too, and it helped!)
    http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2009/08/30/royalty/index.html )
    (The above may be fiction, but perhaps someone can repost it at Mr. Cuban’s blog [without this disclaimer]. Seems one has to be equally rich in his part of the entertainment/sports industry. My apologies to the arts world (which really has many dedicated people in it, and non-profits with small margins). As for poor schmucks toughening it out without pay in yukky basement labs, for a chance at becoming an underpaid postdoc 10 years later, tough luck!)

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