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Can Unpaid Work Be Defended?

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Matt Yglesias says, at least compared to the alternatives, yes:

But now consider journalism. Do unpaid internships in the media industry lock poor kids out of the profession? I think that depends on what you think the likely alternative is. If the Labor Department cracks down, are we going to see a blossoming of paid internships?

My worry would be that we’ll replace zero-salary work/training positions with what amount to negative-salary training in the form of graduate school. Both the unpaid summer internship and the master’s degree in journalism are based on the idea that eight semesters worth of college leaves most people ill-qualified for a paying journalism job without some further seasoning. And while requiring people to spend months working for free does put a substantial barrier in the way of someone who can’t get financial assistance from his parents, requiring someone to spend a year or two paying many thousands of dollars to a school creates a much larger barrier.

And it seems to me that if you look at some of the problems in American education—whether that’s in terms of college dropout rates, student debt, or the bleak fate of high school graduates with no college record—we arguably need something along the lines of more unpaid internships rather than fewer. Of course, if you want to push for that you probably don’t want to call them “unpaid internships.” What you want to do is talk about the need for more vocational education, the success of the German apprenticeship model, the failures of existing job training programs but the desirability of making them work better, etc. But that’s all just to say that erecting extremely sharp walls between “education,” “training,” and “work” doesn’t make a ton of sense in theory and isn’t working out very well in practice either.

A few comments:

  • I agree in re the problems of creeping credentialism, and think that there should be more educational grants as opposed to loans for lower-income people, combined with the federal government using it leverage to keep tuition down.  As long as we’re being utopian, it would also be nice if professional accreditation associations tried to make the number of slots in graduate schools more closely resemble the number of jobs in the field.
  • That said, I think there’s a critical flaw in the argument here, which comes down to this: non-affluent people can borrow money for graduate school but can’t borrow money to work for free.   This may not make sense, but this general framework is enormously unlikely to change.  Because of this, a de facto requirement to do unpaid internships is in fact a much greater barrier to the non-affluent than the requirement to obtain a graduate degree is.
  • I’m also not really persuaded by the causal argument.   It seems to me that the requirement of ever-greater educational credentials is likely to proceed more or less independently of whether employers are allowed to exploit unpaid labor.  In my wife’s field, for example, unpaid internships are crucial to getting decent jobs, but advanced degrees are also a de facto and in many cases de jure requirement, and it’s not unusual for people in entry-level positions to have advanced degrees their supervisors don’t.  If unpaid labor is supposed to be stopping requirements for additional educational credentials, it doesn’t seem to be succeeding.
  • The German apprenticeship program might well be a model to emulate, but it’s a non-sequitur in this context because if I understand correctly apprentices are paid.
  • And, finally, there’s the most important problem with many unpaid internships: they quite clearly violate federal labor law.  One could make a libertarian argument against minimum wage laws, but I reject it with extreme prejudice (and Matt doesn’t support such arguments either.)  Not paying people for work that people would otherwise be paid for is both bad in itself and have other bad effects on the labor market in general.  The burden of proof, it seems to me, should squarely be on those who believe that the law should be ignored.

My belief is that people, with some very narrowly defined exceptions should be paid for work, and federal labor law reflects this belief as well. Ultimately, nothing in Matt’s argument compels me to revisit this view.

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