02 June 2013

Training Rebranded: Internships and the Value of Work

Unless you are under 14 or have been living on a desert island for a few decades, you know what an internship is. But just in case, internships offer young people the opportunity to work for businesses and institutions for little or no monetary compensation to gain references and experience in the process. The modern internship system began in the ’60s and ’70s as a fast track into certain elite financial industries, but starting in the mid ’80s they appeared in other industries. Thirty years later they have become not just a prerequisite for future employment but a hoped-for opportunity for millions of enterprising youth searching for a way into a future desk job.

Decades ago they might have been a relatively benign educational opportunity nestled in the comfort of the Fordist economic system. Today internships represent economic trends that raise disturbing questions about the present and future of capitalism, especially with respect to training, experience, and the devaluation of labor.

As noted above, internships began as training programs for elite economic sectors. Training can be extremely expensive. Beginning with a basic education, it often involves on-site training or continued education as well. Historically labor intensive or manufacturing (“blue collar”) jobs often involve on-site training, in which the employer pays the worker to learn the job after she or he has been hired. Here the cost of this training is borne by the employer.

Clerical and highly specialized (“white collar”) work is different. Rather than being trained after they have been hired, employees are expected to bring sufficient training to the workplace beforehand and are expected to front the cost. This cost is often explicit, shown in rising college tuition, increasingly harsh debt burdens, or corruption.

But sometimes the cost of this training is hidden, and reimagined as payment for that vital commodity, “experience.” Young people work long, difficult, and stressful jobs for free or less than minimum wage in exchange for experience. As experience, the cost of training is transformed from something that employers need and must pay for into a privilege, something workers must compete over in the hopes of being noticed. Its origin as training, a cost that must be compensated for, is obscured and lost. Training is something companies and schools provide. Experience is something workers either have or lack.

It’s true that worker’s wages compensate for their training or experience—at least theoretically. Businesses would say that internships’ opportunities for networking and job experience pay off for interns in future jobs. This would make internships an investment in one’s own future. In an economy of youth unemployment in which low- and entry-level positions require years of experience, unemployed, underemployed, or underutilized young workers are having an increasingly difficult time finding their way into the economy. Internships offer their enterprising participants a leg up.

These justifications deliberately conceal the workings of the job market. Internships work because there are so few jobs to be had—not many people would work for free if there were an alternative. Even those who do get jobs find their wages reduced by the masses of un- and underemployed who would unleash a flood of résumés and cover letters on a vacated position. And most insidiously of all, the existence of internships means that any young person unsatisfied with her low wage, long hour, entry level job knows that she might be fired and replaced by one, two, or even three interns willing to work even longer and harder for the experience.

Internships don’t just rebrand training as experience—they make that training and that experience itself less valuable by giving work away for free. Recent hires find their wages lower, not higher, their jobs more expendable, not more valuable, all due to the very internships they and their peers had accepted with the opposite intentions. Young people sabotage their ambitions ‎by their efforts to achieve them.

The downward pressure that internships exert on the wages of young people and anyone in an entry level job is connected to the phenomenon of devaluation. Devaluation describes what happens when something that had value loses it. It usually results from social and technological change, market fluctuations, or major economic crises. Mechanization in the auto industry devalued the work of car assemblers. Sudden shifts in the stock market can cause the prices of commodities to plummet with little explanation. And the recent financial crisis was tied to the devaluation of thousands of mortgages and the property they represented. Because work is just another commodity—with inputs like food and training, and outputs like products and profits—work can also be devalued.

This is the crux of the matter. Internships severely reduce the value of workers’ training and labor by transforming what might have been a cost to employers into a net positive in the form of the money they save by taking on an intern rather than hiring someone to do the same work. This process is not a conspiracy on the part of too-greedy business people. It’s simply that, in their own words, they’d be crazy to ignore this abundant source of free labor.

As a society we tend to frown on the social consequences of the devaluation of work, such as youth unemployment or the fact that more and more young people now live with their parents rather than setting out on their own. There is even growing concern in the withered regulatory bodies of the United States that many internships might be illegal because they are being used to replace what would otherwise be paid workers rather than as educational opportunities (though exactly how interns were supposed to work without replacing workers is beyond me). But once begun, the processes started by the internization of young workers are hard to reverse.

In the wake of the present crisis companies in the most developed countries flaunt unhidden and illegal practices. Businesses and governments all over the world have tightened their belts, downsized, and cut back more than some had imagined possible. Portugal, Spain, Greece, and other countries around the globe are experiencing extremely high rates of unemployment, some of them unprecedented in the post-war era, and some have begun to speak of a “crisis of work.” Internships are not the cause, but they are a part of this trend in our economy toward the devaluation of labor.

The frightening conclusion to be made from this large scale return of unpaid labor to the economy is that capitalism is now increasingly unwilling to pay for the cost of the labor it needs to survive, and that employers are demanding that their workers make up that cost. Such demands are not new to capitalism—they are in fact very old—but they are new to generations of privileged citizens of Western democracies accustomed to reaping the benefits of centuries of labor struggles without having to participate in them.

But do these changes in the the way we think about training and in the way that work is paid for signify something dark and new about contemporary capitalism? Should they be interpreted as a continuation of neoliberalism’s tendency toward the devaluation of industrial labor, an old trend finally reaching into educated, highly skilled, and office work? And, if so, should this trend be understood as a manifestation of what Marx called “the falling rate of profit,” which eventually causes all capitalist industries and economies to collapse under their own weight? These questions are vital not only to understanding our past and present, but to imagining our possible futures.

Some might say that we have raised a generation of people who are wrong for the world, people who foolishly studied things that interested them in college rather than wisely deciding on the lucrative industries of today. I prefer to think that we live in a world that is wrong for us—not only for youth, but for almost everyone. The trends discussed in this post should be despised, not accepted, fought, not dealt with. Youth have begun to do this, from students in the US to the Indignados in Spain, but where the fight will go from there is up to us. Unpaid work is illegal, and should be stopped, along with any business or economy that relies on it.


  1. Ross Perlin wrote an excellent book on internships called "Intern Nation," published by Verso in 2011. It's a rather mainstream, social-democratic/"left-liberal" take, but nevertheless it's an insightful analysis.

  2. I think that Eugene's post raises a very important point, namely that one doesn't have to have a job to be a worker. The struggle of those desperately trying to amass enough 'experience' to gain employment is linked to the travails of the employed and underemployed, and ultimately, the chronically unemployed as well.

    Of course, even with the consciousness of this fact, there remains the question of the forms of organization that could politically articulate the concerns of such a broadly conceived group of workers...