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Why We Still Haven’t Solved the Unpaid Internship Problem

The president and vice president announced this month that they were going to pay their interns. The White House put out a news release. I think we were supposed to stand up and cheer.

But the correct response ought to be collective embarrassment that this gig has been unpaid for so long — and that so many more internships, both in Washington and across America, remain so.

Millions of college students work for money each summer because they need it and their financial aid office tells them to go earn some. Then there are those White House interns from previous administrations — often white, sometimes rich and, by summer’s end, presumably very well connected — buffing their résumés.

Is the problem evident? It first clicked in for me in the early 1990s when my interview for a summer internship at Chicago magazine was going well until I found out that I’d be working for free.

When I started asking questions — what was a financial aid recipient like me supposed to do to make enough to afford school, and isn’t this all a form of classism? — the tenor of the meeting took a turn. I didn’t get the offer.

Only decades later are we now arriving at what the White House calls this “significant milestone.” But what happened in the years in between, and who’s responsible for what did not happen and hasn’t happened yet?

Unpaid internships are distinctively American in so many respects. First, there’s the baseline expectation of paying your dues, rather than being paid for work you do. Then comes the pressure to gain experience in what seems like an “ever more competitive economy with just a few winners,” as Ross Perlin, the author of “Intern Nation,” put it to me in an email this week.

Finally, we have lawsuits. Condé Nast, known for its magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair, shut its U.S. internship program down after former interns sued. A suit by former interns who worked on films for Fox was settled, after a federal appeals court ruled that interns are not entitled to payment under federal and state minimum-wage laws if they are the “primary beneficiary” of the work.

This is a strange and murky standard, and few striving teenagers will have the nerve to test it in open court. Push hard enough in a lawsuit, and it becomes part of the public record. Then every future employer sees you suing an employer right there on the first page of your Google search results.

For anyone seeking legal clarity about whether an unpaid internship at a for-profit entity is in fact a job for which compensation is necessary, the Department of Labor offers a seven-part test. It includes whether training is similar to what interns might get in a classroom and whether their “work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees” while providing those educational benefits. “Unpaid internships for public sector and nonprofit charitable organizations, where the intern volunteers without expectation of compensation, are generally permissible,” the memo adds.

Amid this squishiness, employers have seen fit to put people to work in about one million unpaid internships per year, according to an estimate from the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Of the students who are not interns, 67 percent would like to be, according to a different survey from the center. Having an existing job and not being able to afford the low wages were two reasons respondents checked off when reporting obstacles to taking an internship, though “unsure how to find internship” was the reason they cited most.

Handing them the $20.76 per hour that paid interns make on average, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, would presumably make it easier to take any position they could find. So what — and who — could make employers pay everyone?

In theory, President Biden could go further by issuing an executive order ending unpaid internships throughout the federal government. White House representatives did not respond to several messages asking why he didn’t (and for comment on the hoped-for demographics of their future interns).

Last June, Mr. Biden issued an order instructing various agencies to “promote” and “increase” paid internships. It was a start, with anything like an end likely to be years away. There are, among other things, budgetary practicalities. At the White House, money for the interns is coming from newly enacted legislation.

While the gears of government grind, the State Department offers unpaid internships abroad for now. Unless your family happens to live outside the United States or has a home there, you’re potentially on the hook for travel and living expenses. Good luck to my fellow financial aid kids, though the department intends to offer only paid spots starting next year.

Gatekeepers of various sorts could help reduce the prevalence of these uncompensated positions, if they were willing. There appears to be no groundswell of college or university career counseling offices refusing to post unpaid internship listings and barring employers that don’t pay their interns.

“Higher education has been complicit,” said Carlos Mark Vera, co-founder and executive director of Pay Our Interns, an advocacy organization that lobbied the White House to make its change.

Student Loans: Key Things to Know


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Corinthian Colleges. In its largest student loan forgiveness action ever, the Education Department said that it would wipe out $5.8 billion owed by 560,000 students who attended Corinthian Colleges, one of the nation’s biggest for-profit college chains before it collapsed in 2015.

New sources of aid. The Education Department will use one-time waivers and adjustments to retroactively credit millions of borrowers with additional payments toward loan forgiveness. The move will help people seeking to have their loans eliminated under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and through the use of income-driven repayment plans.

Payments delayed again. President Biden pushed the restart date for federal student loan payments to Sept. 1, extending a pause put in place at the start of the pandemic. Millions of borrowers who have defaulted on their federal student loans will also get a fresh start and have their loans restored to good standing.

The cost of private loans. As the Fed changes its benchmark rate, private student loan borrowers should expect to pay more, as both fixed and variable rate loans are linked to benchmarks that track the federal funds rate.

Then there’s the glaring issue of schools that offer course credit for internships.

Schools benefit from this arrangement in two ways, said David C. Yamada, a professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston and an expert on the rules around internships. First, intern-for-credit programs can allow institutions to collect tuition for that credit, even as students are working out in the world and don’t need classroom space or an instructor standing in front of it for four months.

Then, it allows a school to say it’s providing valuable career preparation. “If I hear another university invoke the phrase ‘Hit the ground running,’ I think I’m going to scream,” he said.

The gatekeeper with the most power here might be Handshake, a company you may have never heard of. In the nine years since its founding, more than 650,000 employers have used it to reach students for both internships and entry-level jobs, often via their career counseling offices. Unpaid internships would decrease pretty sharply if the company refused to post openings for them, thus cutting off the supply of ready labor to employers that wish to hire students without compensation. I challenged Handshake to throw down this gauntlet, and it declined to do so.

It is saying many of the right things, though, and doing at least some of them. “We believe unpaid internships shouldn’t be the norm, and we actively discourage them on Handshake because they often exacerbate inequities in early careers,” its chief operating officer, Jonathan Stull, told me in an emailed statement.

They aren’t the norm on Handshake’s platform. Of the internship listings there this year, 75 percent have been paid, on average, at any given time. Among employers that work most closely with the company, 99 percent of the internships that they post are paid. Handshake also reminds employers that paid internship postings attract 32 more applicants per job than unpaid ones.

Who’s not listening to the company? The three worst fields are nongovernment organizations (just 17 percent of internship postings are paid); politics (27 percent); and movies, TV and music (30 percent).

The fourth is journalism, media and publishing, with 32 percent of Handshake’s internship listings in that category paid. Aaaaargh. For what it’s worth, in the New York Times newsroom, our interns and yearlong fellows are paid, and the fellows get benefits, too. My old friends at Chicago magazine do pay what they now call their research assistants.

Fixing all of this means reckoning with imbalances of power. Teenagers don’t have much, and they need internships on their résumés to get ahead. Schools have some, but there’s a lot about the status quo that works for them. Any edict from Handshake would cause it to lose at least some listings, sending users over to LinkedIn or Indeed.com. And federal and state governments move slowly.

Still, shining a big bright light works sometimes. Not long after Condé Nast settled the lawsuit that former interns had filed, it started a paid fellowship program that lasted for a few years.

Then, last year, when concerned employees were forcing the company to have many more conversations about equity and inclusion, it restarted its internship program. The group was Condé Nast’s most diverse collection of interns ever.

And this time, the company is paying.

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