Monday, May 6, 2013

Unpaid internships perpetuate class privilege

Ms. Kendzior's op-ed reminded me of something I don't mention often enough: the colossal institutional unfairness of unpaid internships, which abound in the U.S. especially.  In many other countries there are labor laws against them, and for good reason.  If an intern is doing something useful, he is potentially displacing another worker for free, which isn't fair.  And if the intern is not doing anything useful, and just padding his resume by filling a chair, then the internship is useless anyway.  So there's no real excuse for unpaid internships.    

Kendzior's point is spot-on that only a well-off person can afford to work for free in the first place, which is a form of class discrimination that perpetuates class privilege.

Full disclosure: I've had two internships in my life.  The first one I was so grateful and excited to get, I was too nervous to even ask about getting paid for it. Then, at the end of the summer, to my surprise, I got a fairly decent paycheck for the whole shebang. Boy, was I thrilled, like icing on the cake.  But the truth is that I had a roof over my head and pocket money even without it.  Without that, I'd have had to get a paying summer job.  

The second time I actually paid for the privilege of the internship, ostensibly for an added educational component... that didn't lead to any college credits or diploma.  Years later I'm a bit dubious about the worth of that experience; but... experience is experience, and it filled up some idle time in my life.  But again, without financial help from my grandpa, I never would have been able to take advantage of that internship, no way.  

Look, I'm not against internships. But they should be paid. Even more, I'm for apprenticeships.  Long ago, the only way to get real professional skills -- and this included doctors and lawyers -- was to apprentice to somebody.  This age-old practice worked then and it can work now; only it doesn't have to be one-on-one.  It can be and is adapted for the modern corporate office or factory.  Germany manages to integrate real apprenticeships into its vocational education system, and its graduates are ready to hit the ground running at a very young age and add real value to their employers, unlike many American twenty-somethings who bounce from dead-end job to dead-end job until they eventually, maybe, find their niche.  It's a terrible waste of their human potential and our tax dollars that go towards 12 years of mandatory, formal education.  We can do better and be fairer.

By Sarah Kendzior
May 4, 2013 | Aljazeera

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