Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Right Way to Do Unpaid Internships

I'm going to guess if college students shunned unpaid summer internships, somebody who wrote this book would take them to task for imitating the Baby Boomers' alleged self-centeredness. I cannot but shake my head in disbelief at (and naturally blog about) yesterday's op-ed about unpaid internships by Anya Kamenetz in The New York Times.

Her thesis is to question whether the encouragement of unpaid internships is a good thing for the interns and for society at large. In her own words:
Let's look at the risks to the lowly intern. First there are opportunity costs. Lost wages and living expenses are significant considerations for the two-thirds of students who need loans to get through college. Since many internships are done for credit and some even cost money for the privilege of placement overseas or on Capitol Hill, those students who must borrow to pay tuition are going further into debt for internships.

Second, though their duties range from the menial to quasi-professional, unpaid internships are not jobs, only simulations. And fake jobs are not the best preparation for real jobs.
It is true that there are opportunity costs. (Shall I ask her to identify the activity for which ther are no opportunity costs, or should I just refer her to a discussion of revealed preference?) At Dartmouth, students may apply to the Rockefeller Center for a stipend to cover living expenses when they take an unpaid internship in the public or non-profit sectors. Several of the roughly 40 internships awarded each year are supported financially by alumni or alumni classes who specifically value the opportunities gained through working in an unpaid capacity in the public or non-profit sector.

Just as importantly, when students receiving financial aid apply for a grant, the Center contributes to or covers the financial aid contribution expected from the students' summer work activities, enabling them to focus on their internships without necessarily picking up a part-time job. So Ms. Kamanetz is overstating her case, at least where institutions like Dartmouth are concerned. If her younger sister at Yale, whose internship in New Orleans motivated her op-ed, did not have this opportunity, then her sister (like many others) should have tried to come to Dartmouth rather than Yale.

No one would deny the simple fact that students who come from well off families have more opportunities than those who come from less well off families. That point is irrelevant here, as long as we make sure that the internship is not relatively more expensive for the students from less well off families.

Her second point is sheer lunacy. I supervised a few interns while at CEA. I wouldn't call their experiences "simulations" or "fake." They were assigned projects commensurate with their abilities and academic preparation. Their contributions were generally quite good, and some were downright impressive. One of my regrets after my year at CEA was that I did not go work there as an intern or research assistant 15 years earlier while I was in college. It would have made me a better economist. I think the 10 students being sponsored by the Rockefeller Center this spring (on the page linked above) all have interesting opportunities ahead of them as well. Take a look at the full list from last year, along with a few in-depth profiles, in the Center's annual report.

At the Center, we have taken our support of internships further with the advent of our Civic Skills Training program, in which the Center's staff spends 5 days in Washington with a group of students before their internships to educate them about the public and non-profit sectors and to train them in the skills they will need to succeed in their internships. The Rockefeller Center picks up the entire cost of the training.

I would never presume to disparage a student's choice to work to earn money over the summer rather than work in an unpaid public or non-profit internship. But the suggestion that unpaid internships are not contributing substantially to students' development as young adults is preposterous and flies in the face of what thoughtful colleges are doing to support those internships.

UPDATE: Tony Vallencourt comments below and posts to his blog about the other parts of the Kamenetz op-ed, dealing with societal issues of a perceived lack of access to internships. I actually thought those were the weak points of the op-ed and so left them out of my post. Will Wilkinson takes Kamenetz to task for them on his blog in "The Baffling Mind of Anya Kamenetz."


Tony Vallencourt said...

I think you are underestimating the distributional impacts here. It seems likely to me that these stipend programs are not going to level the playing field enough, as they are likely (a) not as widespread as Dartmouth would suggest and (b) likely not publicized enough (or funded enough) to reach enough students to address the imbalance.

Here's my take

Arun Khanna said...

Some unpaid internships are busy work or non-useful simulated work. Other unpaid internships are great learning experience. Besides the internship, the learning experience depends on the student.
Personal background of the student and activist faculty on campuses nationwide can easily color an undergraduate student's view of life and corporate sector. It takes a number of years for people to change their initial impression.

Anonymous said...

Only reasonable response to an intern: get a real job.

Anonymous said...

Unpaid internships, or at least some of them, can obviously provide a leg up for those who have them. However, the appropriate attack on unpaid internships is that they can favor the already privileged. The poorer you (or more likely, your family) are, the less you can afford to spend a term without pay. Prof. Samwick's suggestion about Rocky grants fails in two respects. First, it does nothing for students who are poor enough that they have to work to save money in order to afford college. Those do exist at Dartmouth, you know. I suppose there is no concern for "distributional" effects of that sort. Second, that elite privileged institutions like Dartmouth gives means by which their students can afford to do internships would be a laughable response to the claim that unpaid internships generally help the privileged.