Response to Bilmes on Internship Equity

Bilmes linked to a NY Times article today about the increasing number of interns that are working without pay for the prospect of future employment opportunities. His sympathies seem to lie with the underpaid (or not paid) and overworked summer intern:

The employer, on the other hand, gets an eager worker for a whole summer, without having to pay for wages, insurance, or anything else. Seems like a pretty good deal.

The problem is that many students cannot afford to work as an unpaid intern. These jobs are often in cities such as New York or Washington with high rent and a high cost of living. (Libby’s rent actually seems cheap; I paid more than double that to live in DC.) And while there are some college programs (such as Cornell’s Meinig program) which help to offset summer expenses, most students do not have access to grants or other sources of funding.

The result is a widening of the class divide. The children of wealthy parents can afford to take unpaid internships, which then translate to better jobs after college. Poorer students cannot afford to take unpaid internships, so they are at a disadvantage when it comes to job searching.

Libby is the Cornell student referenced in the NY Times article.

If a student’s financial situation was the only thing dictating whether or not he or she was able to do internships during summer breaks, it would be difficult for me to disagree that summer internships helped maintain/widen class divides. But I think it’s more complicated than that. Lots of factors determine whether or not a college student gets an internship (beyond the student’s actual qualifications as an applicant). For example, my friends who are studying government or international relations had a much easier time finding positions as think tank interns than people studying math or engineering. Location matters too. I live right outside of D.C., so I don’t incur any of the high costs of rent inside the city. Finally, connections are important. Yes, sometimes having connections is synonymous with being wealthy, but that’s not always the case. So I’m not entirely disagreeing with Bilmes on the “widening of class divides,” but I think we do need some more data to support this point.

I do however disagree with this: “What’s the solution? For one, companies, organizations, and even the U.S. government should sign a resolution to pay their interns at least minimum wage. In many places, this will not cover the cost of living, but students will not find themselves in as much of a hole.” I won’t attack this point from a “hands off the free internship market!” perspective. But I do think that many of these internships are not even worth minimum wage compensation, and organizations do interns a favor by allowing them to intern with them for the summer. Lots of organizations, especially think tanks, do not have the funds to pay a group of interns to read DrudgeReport all day while organizing an occasional conference. If anything, such a resolution would reduce the total number of available internships and increase the role of nepotism/connections in internship searches.

His second recommendation, though,  is more practical: “Second, universities should make more funding available to students for summer internships. How about a program at Cornell in which rising juniors and seniors with at least a 3.6 GPA can receive $3,000 to cover summer expenses if they take an unpaid internship?” These wouldn’t be handouts, they’d be rewards for good performances! Good idea, in my book.

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