Internships: why paying for experience is bad business

It’s no longer enough to be willing to work for free – now you need to pay for the privilege of working for no salary

Psst. Want a job working for Miami Heat basketball star LeBron James? There’s a nice internship in online marketing and another in content development currently being advertised on his website. If you are interested, you best get on it quick. Applications are due Tuesday.

Salary? Funny you should ask. The site doesn’t specify the amount on offer but the ad specifies that no one will be considered unless they are enrolled in college.

That’s probably a hint. We don’t know what James is or isn’t paying for the gig – his representatives did not return a request for comment or clarification – but it’s worth noting many intern gigs appear to be offering to help arrange college credit in lieu of even receiving minimum wage. James himself, who in the past complained he was underpaid, makes over $17.5m a year.

Certainly many fans do not believe James should pay, despite his estimated $90m net worth. As someone wrote on his website, “The fact that the internship is with LeBron is payment in itself.”

Welcome to the latest version of intern hell, where it’s no longer enough to be willing to work for free. Now you need to pay for the privilege of working for no salary.

There are a few ways this works. On the most basic level an intern works for no payment in return for college credit. It’s a good deal – or so it seems – unless you realize you are paying a tuition bill in return for a job that either doesn’t offer a salary or pays an amount so minuscule it’s unlikely to cover the cost of books, much less the tuition bill.

Needless to say, all too many colleges and universities love these arrangements.

Not only do they get to collect money in return for not offering a class, they also get to claim credit in the greater world for offering their students both book learning and opportunities to acquire real-life smarts.

But some of the most desirable intern gigs go to the highest bidder – and I mean that literally. Earlier this spring, the charitable fundraising site Bidding for Good auctioned off a one-month internship at Marc Jacobs in the Collections Accessories Sales Department for $4,000. Over at Charity Buzz, another such platform, there are currently ten internships on the block including a one-day gig with Fox 2000 Pictures executive Jessica Goodman that offers to help someone “get your foot in the door.” With nine days to go, the leading bid is $325.

These sound like bargain basement rates compared to some other recent sales. The all-time record appears to be a week-long internship at Vogue that went for $42,500 in 2010, but other numbers are also jaw-dropping. Last month saw an internship with an unspecified United Nations affiliated non-governmental organization go for $26,000, with the funds to benefit the Robert F Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.

So why do people pay to play along? As jobs become scarce, internships are viewed as an alternative way of buttressing up one’s credentials. Employers want employees with skills, and internships at least provide the illusion.

Here’s proof that there’s demand for these non-jobs: there are now internship brokers, no charitable veneer required.

There are outfits like Dream Careers, whose website boasts of “Guaranteed Intern Placement. Top Companies” in cities such as New York, Washington DC and San Francisco and says that spending $8,499 for a two-month internship (food and housing included) is a “practical and wise investment in your professional future.” Another such company is the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars.

And if you lack the money to pay? No need to worry. That’s what bank-offered student loans are for. According to the website for Dream Careers, about 50% of those taking part in their program receive private student loans to help offset their expenses. (Dream Careers also did not respond to a request for comment.) The site supplies links to helpful banks, including Wells Fargo, Citizens Bank and Chase, while reminding would-be interns to list their college and not Dream Careers as the school they are attending. Just think about it: you can pay for that job that’s not paying you, decades into the future.

There are obvious problems with these arrangements. Rich students gain their employment experiences in the executive offices of the Gap, while poor kids are more likely to start out with minimum-wage, service-sector jobs that offer little in the way of security or job growth. Guess which is thought to lead to better professional advancement?

Are these sorts of unpaid arrangements legal? It’s almost certain in the majority of cases, that the answer is no. It seems likely the moment an unpaid intern is asked to take on a task, they are replacing a paid employee. Even assistants who get coffee for the boss expect a paycheck, after all. Yet with the exception of a few scattered lawsuits, no one is cracking down. People are simply too desperate for any opportunity, and fear being blackballed if they complain.

The internship economy is one that already promotes everything from a perverse form of conspicuous consumption (I can afford to work and not get paid!) to the continued gains of those at the top of the financial pyramid at the expense of everyone else. Pay-to-play internships twist the already tight economic screws a little tighter. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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