Unpaid Internships: Drawing a Moral Line

Source: theilr on Flickr (Creative Commons)

In a post not long ago, I argued against unpaid internships on the grounds that they are socially unjust. It’s not a new argument (see: Unpaid Internships: The High Cost of Free Work, Take This Internship and Shove It). The thesis of this argument follows a bit of an A+B=C format: because (A) unpaid internships are presumably less accessible to poorer segments of the population, and (B) these opportunities presumably give interns a competitive advantage in the job market, (C) unpaid internships are ultimately serving to uphold a classist society, where opportunities are not equal.

In doing a bit more research on the issue for a FAQ page on unpaid internships for SFU Career Services, I’ve since learned that I did some assuming in my original post, and may have got assumptions A and B wrong. Allow me to elaborate.

Flawed Assumption A: Unpaid Internships are Less Accessible to the Poor.

According to a 2010 study by Internbridge (.pdf warning), it appears that the opposite is probably true: if anything, unpaid internships are more common among students from poorer families, not less. A recent article published at The Atlantic breaks down the main findings from that study, and their implications, nicely:

If anything, poor and middle class students are extra likely to get stuck in unpaid internships. Rich kids, by and large, seem to prefer collecting a paycheck.

Such were the findings of a fascinating 2010 study conducted for Intern Bridge, a consulting firm that specializes in college recruiting, and one of the few major sources of data on the internship market. After analyzing survey responses from thousands of college students, the paper concluded: “Our findings do not support the common contention that students from the wealthiest families have greater access to unpaid internships, even among most for profit companies. Low income students have a much higher level of participation in unpaid internships than students from high income families.”

via The Atlantic

Flawed Assumption B: Unpaid Interns Gain a Competitive Advantage in the Job Market.

If you’re thinking, “how could this be wrong?” you wouldn’t be alone. Nonetheless, real evidence suggests that, on average, there is no real advantage conferred to unpaid interns in the job market. A 2013 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) revealed some startling results: unpaid interns only received 1.8% more job offers than those with no internships at all. Paid interns, on the other hand, were about twice as likely to have received at least one job offer within a year of their internship.

via The Atlantic

To make matters even more interesting, the survey also revealed that median starting salaries for former unpaid interns were less than for those with no internship experience. Ouch.

Going by this evidence, unpaid interns don’t appear to be getting much of a competitive advantage at all, and they are just as popular if not more so among students from low income families.

Conclusion: Unpaid Internships are Socially Unjust.

Interestingly, although perhaps not entirely in the way I originally claimed, it still appears that my conclusion about inequality holds, as unpaid internships are the disadvantage, and are themselves more prevalent in lower income families.

A lot of the debate around unpaid internships inevitably comes down to whether they should be legal or illegal. In most jurisdictions, unpaid internships fall into a sort of legal gray area of employment law. In British Columbia this isn’t really the case, as our Employment Standards Act makes it pretty clear that internships count as “work,” and therefore are subject to the minimum wage. Still, deciding whether something is right or wrong solely on the basis of the law is actually not that morally advanced of a position.

Stages of Moral Development

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg proposed a well known six-stage model of moral development (way back in 1958). It’s not a perfect model, and rightfully has its critics, but it does an intuitive job of describing the different stages a human might go through in developing a set of morals (if they live in a predominantly individualist society). Kohlberg’s stages are as follows:

Stage 1: Obedience and punishment (what’s right is what I’m told is right, and what’s wrong is what’s punished)
Stage 2: Individualism and exchange (what’s best for me)

Stage 3: Interpersonal relationships (everyone plays nice and conforms)
Stage 4: Maintaining social order (obey the law, or else!)

Stage 5: Social contract & individual rights (vote on the rules fairly & follow them)
Stage 6: Universal principles (justice transcends the law)

Sometimes laws get confused with morals. What I like about this model is that simply following the law as written only lies somewhere between stage four and five. The sixth stage, universal principles and abstract reasoning, is actually quite rare to achieve – and rarer to act upon.

If we really want to do the right thing, we have to do more than ask whether something is legal. We have to think about what is really at stake, and what we stand to gain and lose on either side of a decision. When it comes to unpaid internships, given the evidence reviewed in this post and elsewhere, I’m having a difficult time seeing how they can be justified at that level of reasoning.

Hopefully, the law comes to reflect that universally in the end.

*Cross-posted in Dave’s Diary at the Career Services Insider blog.