walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: April 28, 2012
Love for Sale? Well, Maybe Internships

In a truly disturbing blog post at TNR, Timothy Noah has identified one of those national trends that shows where this country is headed, and not in a nice way: internships for sale. As Noah points out, private schools are selling internships in charity auctions; obviously, this gives privileged kids a pretty good leg up in life.

As Noah writes:

Inevitably, the internship-selling racket has slipped the surly bonds of philanthropy and entered the for-profit marketplace. An outfit called the University of Dreams guarantees placement or your money back. Summer-internship fees (the University of Dreams prefers to call it “tuition”) range from $5,499 to $9,499. For 3 percent extra, you can pay on an installment plan. The interns have been placed with firms like Hill and Knowlton and Smith Barney (did a rich, dumb intern start the credit crunch?) in Barcelona, Chicago, Costa Rica, Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Sydney, and Washington, D.C. For-profit consultants like Fast Track Internships are extending the principle of SAT prep to internships by teaching marginally literate students how to polish their résumés and cover letters and by guiding them to potential summer employers. Like the University of Dreams, Fast Track Internships offers a money-back guarantee. Its Web site boasts that it can tap into 85 percent of all internships that are never advertised, a proposition that suggests divine omniscience. Prices range from $799 for an unpaid internship to $999 for a paid internship to $1,999 for a full-time job.

$1000 for an internship? One thing is clear: Tom Sawyer lives. Internships in fence whitewashing are available once more in this land of the free.

In one sense, there’s little to be done about the internship craze. People with money and connections will always use them to help their kids get a better start in life — what, after all, is the point of money and connections if they can’t help the people you love most in the world? If you drive this process underground, it won’t go away; the world will merely become a little bit less transparent and the spawn of the plutocrats will still somehow start the race of life just a few yards closer to the finish line than the rest of us.

The problem of internships is actually a complicated one. Not everyone has the fortitude to treat them with the Spartan discipline we instill at Via Meadia: feed them on scraps, house them in kennels, beat them when they misbehave, and sometimes beat them when they behave just to keep them on their toes. In less Dickensian workplaces than the Via Meadia sweatshops (where Chinese labor practices meet American college grads), an internship is a way to learn about the job market, acquire basic skills, learn office protocol and etiquette, and make connections that can help you take your next steps.

In other words, in today’s world the non-Via Meadia type of internship is increasingly becoming a necessary part of the educational process.  School no longer prepares kids to either get or keep jobs, and internships are springing up to fill the gap. This is partly an indictment of our educational system and partly a statement about how the job market is changing.

First, there’s the educational problem. The huge amounts of time that American adolescents and young adults spend in class don’t actually prepare them in any meaningful way for the job world. Our educational system is horrendously inefficient and glacially slow. In most of our schools, including the “good” ones, kids learn at what by historic standards is a snail’s pace and waste untold days and weeks on trivial assignments amid the tyranny of low expectations.

Most of the framers of the American Constitution had, at most, A BA degree, and many college graduates in those days finished college in their teens.  Our adolescents and young adults have had much more money spent on their formation than previous generations have done, but on the whole they have been taught less. Some of this loss is academic: American education today tends to demand little from most students by world or historical standards and to be poorly focused — lots of fluff courses, little orchestration of learning experiences, many scatter shot learning experiences and very few thoughtful efforts to construct a meaningful introduction to the complicated world in which we live.

But some of what our kids have lost is non-academic; while in some ways (sex, drugs, media decadence) young Americans are immersed in the wild side of life — at least on TV — from an early age, when it comes to the workplace and adult expectations they are often wrapped in cotton wool until their early to mid-twenties. Partly because school drags on forever, and partly because most parents now work away from home so that kids don’t grow up watching people work and learning what that’s like, kids now come to the end of an unconscionably long, excessively expensive, poorly designed academic experience without the slightest idea about how to work or even what work is.

Many have few or no office skills beyond simple typing for which anyone is willing to pay, by and large, in a standard commercial or non-profit environment. Under these conditions, internships become an essential and necessary part of education, and some of the justice questions that apply to school access now apply to internships as well.

There is another reason why internships matter more than they used to: the changing nature of the upper middle class job market. It has always been an advantage to have an ‘in’ with a particular company, but in the golden age of the blue social model things were a little different. Many companies had standard training and employee programs. Large local employers held on-campus interviews; in much of America you knew who the big local employers were and what they were looking for. In the post World War Two era, when the economy was growing rapidly, law firms, universities, major industrial and consumer companies and virtually all the professions were looking to hire a number of young people for lifetime employment.

Discrimination limited most of the good job possibilities to white males. If you were a white male college grad with a pulse and without a police record, senior year in college was not going to be that stressful a year for you. Most of the large employers had training programs; you did your internship, so to speak, after you were hired for the job and not before. Women went into the typing pool by and large; minorities came in through the back door.

What we have now is a much more dynamic, competitive, chaotic and stressful labor market. The major newspapers, magazines and publishing houses are no longer bringing significant numbers of young people into elaborate training programs every year.  Tech companies and energy companies have their own unique patterns, but among the companies that hire young liberal arts graduates, things have changed. Young people are often more mobile than they were a generation ago, so there is greater competition in the hotter cities. The end of old fashioned anti-minority, anti-female discrimination means that talent of all genders and colors is now competing for the slots that white male talent once pretty much had for itself. (Whether a new anti-white male discrimination has appeared in its place is a subject for another post.)

Beyond this, something else has changed: upper middle class professional life is looking less like the Prussian bureaucracy these days and more like the William Morris Talent Agency. In a classic, Prussian blue bureaucracy, the organization is fixed and the sytem doesn’t easily bend. Come in as a typist, and you get promoted to become first a secretary, then an executive secretary and then you follow your boss’ career. Come in a mail room guy and you might get promoted to some other service function. Come in as a junior executive, and you move up the executive ladder.

These days, many workplaces and industries are much less predictable. More and more people start in the mailroom and scramble up as best they can. Getting a job and launching a career in many places these days is less like applying to GM’s young executive program in 1955 and more like trying to break into Hollywood.

On the level of policy we can wring our hands, gnash our teeth and bewail the passing of the good old days while trying to think about some alternatives, but for kids trying to get a start in life, internships are auditions for parts they hope to get. They are a kind of extended job interview — a callback — and young people are often desperate to get them.

Increasingly, many colleges are doing what we do at Bard; our BGIA program in New York (open to non-Bard students as well) has over the years developed a rich network of employers who take BGIA students for semester long internships. (Students take night classes and earn credit during the semester as well.)

There are real problems with the internship system. Students whose parents can’t afford to put them up in New York, Washington or Los Angeles while also paying various placement fees have a real disadvantage compared to young Thurston Howell VI.  And parents who can’t reach powerful corporate tycoons or snooty NGO and foundation execs on the phone can’t arrange the same opportunities for their kids that the A-List families arrange. There are questions about whether interns should earn minimum wage — though I suspect that many companies and most non-profits would drastically cut back on internships if costs went up. (At Via Meadia there has been some loose talk about introducing a “more gruel” policy, but for now we are holding the line.)

Given the changes in the job market, internships — including unpaid ones — are here to stay and we ought to be thinking about how to make the most of them. I would like to see them develop more along the lines of apprenticeships: in the old days parents paid master craftsmen to take on their offspring as apprentices and train them in a craft. There ought to be ways to bring some kind of updated apprenticeship program into the mainstream of American education. This might also involve training and the development of a clearer set of expectations about how people make sure the interns in their charge actually learn something.

This is part of the deep restructuring the American educational system needs: young people on the whole should be spending less time in the classroom, but doing more and doing it more intensively while they are there, and they should be spending more time before they finish school learning what work is all about.

Internships are opportunities for young people to learn what they need to know and meet who they need to know in order to explore the work world and find their own place in it. They are becoming more necessary all the time; we need to make sure that low income and unconnected people have a shot at some good ones, and we need to think much more seriously than most of us yet have about how we can make the internship system work.


show comments
  • Mrs. Davis

    Or maybe we could lower (or eliminate) the minimum wage, since it clearly exceeds the marginal productivity of these whelps.

  • Gary L

    WRM says:

    Come in a mail room guy and you might get promoted to some other service function.

    No less a figure than Walter Cronkite warned us against the mailroom.

    “One word of caution about the mailroom: it is a place out of which you must get. Do not get stuck in the mailroom. Plan to rise.”

    – How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1995 revival)

    Unfortunately, the idea that we can succeed in business (et al.) without really trying has become rather ingrained in the American psyche of late….

  • Jim.

    One thing I see happening more and more is the tendency of the great mass of people, upon finding a good idea, depending more and more upon that idea until the reason it was a good idea is finally lost, and it becomes destructive of the very ends it was meant to serve.

    Need a way to find good college candidates? Develop the SAT. Well, before long you have SAT prep growing up around it, gaming the system and defeating the original purpose.

    How about extra-curricular activities? Well, those sports teams now get to demand an outrageous commitment that forestalls any involvement in other valuable activities like Scouts and after-school jobs. Again, self-defeating.

    College itself? Now, a cushy degree-factory offering useless classes and overwhelming debts. It’s a path to the poorhouse, not prosperity.

    It isn’t just in education. Does a bit of credit allow a wider range of people to buy medium- and big-ticket items, like houses, cars, and home appliances? Open the credit spigots! Free money for everyone! Lead to a crash? Of course not!

    Can government provide money to keep people from starvation? Well, if it can do that, why not guarantee jobs, housing, comfortable retirement, every health-care need you can imagine?? (What do you mean we can’t afford it?)

    Same thing with internships. They’re a good and useful idea. But the discovery of internships as the new Easy Way to Get Ahead fashion has perhaps done some grievous harm to the institution. Is paying for internships the new Apprenticeship, or the new Simony?

    Honestly, what we need here is a return to virtue. With a work ethic, commitment to learning, the sense that you must approach debt carefully and with the full intent to honor it, with a sense of doing what we can while scrupulously keeping government spending within government revenue, we can make all of these things work.

    When we concentrate only on the good that things can presumably do and on their outer forms, instead of giving adequate attention to HOW it’s supposed to do good and what virtues are necessary for it to do good (and how it can go wrong if we don’t have those virtues), we’re just Cargo Culting at best, and at worst inviting the Next Big Crash.

  • Luke Lea

    Sounds like China.

  • Walter Sobchak

    I have three children, 24, 27, and 30.

    The oldest majored in theater, and had to serve 6 months without pay before they would put her on the payroll.

    The younger ones majored in Math, and neither one had to serve an internship.

  • dearieme

    My father could remember the days when you paid to do an apprenticeship.

    Mind you, it was only half-a-dozen years ago that a young chum of mine was paid to do an internship one summer in a City law firm.

  • Anthony

    Do internships = social order acculturation/opportunity? Are internships a class strategy accessing competitive economic resources? Do capitalist create opportunities/jobs or do (in acceptable economy) purchasing power/opportunity of both working and middle class enrich capitalist? Perhaps, rethinking economic paradigm may bring another perspective to internship/apprenticeship conundrum.

  • C. Phillips

    One (or several) such internships as a replacement for a BA in Comparative Literature, instead of in addition to the degree, is probably much less expensive and for most people much more valuable.

  • John Barker

    Instead of relying on inflated grade averages, inflated college entrance exam scores,enhanced resumes and other measures which have been successfully gamed, business needs to organize and control testing that really measures critical thinking abilities or domain specific knowledge as is done already in engineering and accounting. The hiring pool begins with the top quartile in each test. I assume of course that business really depends on knowledge and intelligence.

  • CitiKitty

    I and the “Old Grey Lady”* agree with Mrs.Davis that “The Right Minimum Wage (should be):$0.00″.

    * Back in 1987, when her tresses were just going salt&pepper.

  • Douglas Levene

    The solution to the internship racket is simple. The Federal Government needs to start enforcing the minimum wage laws. Those laws require companies to pay minimum wages but make exceptions for interns who (i) are being given college credit for their work and (ii) are not performing work of economic value for the company. These Government is happy to enforce these laws when the result is that minority children can’t get jobs because they aren’t worth the minimum wage, but (under both Democratic and Republican presidents) the Government has no interest in enforcing these laws when doing so might jeopardize the chances that some upper class child might not make a smooth transition into the working world.

  • HeatherRadish

    “and waste untold days and weeks on trivial assignments”

    My 7-year-old niece lost two afternoons of classroom time this month for Earth Day: the children spent them performing unpaid manual labor, picking up litter in a state and a local park.

    I’m a big fan of child labor–at that age I spent Saturdays helping my parents and grandparents do yardwork and gardening–but if it replaces their education, their lives will be much smaller, much harder. The “educators” and labor reformers of the 19th century recognized this; the “educators” of the 21st can’t or won’t.

  • Douglas Levene

    Further clarification. Academic credit is not required, but it is absolutely clear that the internship has to provide training comparable to what an educational institution would provide and that the employer derive no economic benefit from the intern. One of the six criteria issued by the Government states, “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the
    activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded.” How many of those Hollywood movie studio and NY publishing internships meet that criteria, I wonder.

  • Richard F. Miller

    Selling internships is just another self-financing technique in a world where standards of living are in decline. They’re analogous to the fees governments began charging long ago to visit what was once a “free” public park. Think of airline baggage fees, municipalities charging for once free services such as garbage collection or water.

    Institutions no longer have the abundance to provide pro bono things that actually cost real money. No objections here–perhaps it’s a more honest way of life. But whatever one thinks of its “morality” the larger significance is how it feeds into all Blue Model tick tock on this and other sites.

    WRM concedes that the shift from Blue Model to the great unknown will have have unknown consequences. Auctioning off internships likely is one of these.

  • Luke Lea

    @ #3 Jim — well said.

  • Boritz

    As long as I can remember the managers doing the hiring (of new college graduates) have had nothing but contempt for the lack of preparation the academy provides the students for entering the real world of work. This includes both a lack of general preparation to function in an office setting (The company doesn’t give us off spring break?” You’re kidding!”) as well as a lack of specific commercial technical skills that would allow a new hire to become productive within the organization the same afternoon they are hired.

    The academy likewise, has had nothing but contempt for any perceived need that they offer such preparation. This is especially true of specific commercial skills. “We are not a trade school!” they will say. “We are teaching concepts that the student will be able to generalize to any situation [eventually].”

    As a culture we have gotten away with this disconnect for a time, though not without pain. Now it seem to be reaching crisis proportions. The insanity (what else could it be) that you can’t get a job without experience and you can’t get experience without a job was always dumb (as well as crazy).

  • teapartydoc

    The one thing in the movie Soylent Green (or it could have been the book–did both) that turned out to be a bit accurate was the purchasing of job opportunities. When a society is collapsing in a pile of corruption while still maintaining most of its former hierarchies jobs are so few that the competition for them boils down to whether or not you are willing to pay to get your foot in the door, rather than qualifications. Right now “willing to pay” means either that you are willing to pay the price of a better house than you live in to send your kid to get a piece of paper in a college, or borrowing enough to do so. When things get so bad that the average person can’t afford to do this, the corruption simply follows the mass of people down the ladder to the next level. You want an answer as to how to stop this? Get rid of government-recognized credentials, and when private associations take over credentialing, don’t give official sanction to ANY of them. Keep them competing.

  • Kansas Scott

    There are times when I think Via Media needs to heal thyself. In your excellent piece today on the NYT’s coverage of the recall election in Wisconsin, you write “a more narrowly focused, better thought through, less confrontational approach could have made the necessary reforms with a lot less trouble and polarization.”

    Here you take a fascinating insight into the selling of internships and turn it into a meandering slog of “mosts” and “manys” bemoaning the state of our youth and their education.

    There are huge problems (as there have always been) in our education of today’s young. But look at your starving interns and recognize that they are not freaks (at least most of them) but a sample of the remarkable talent and innovation that the upcoming generation offers.

    Please use less carpet-bombing and more surgical strikes in your important critiques of what we are doing to the young. They will survive and thrive despite our best efforts.

  • D. Cohen

    “Getting a job and launching a career in many places these days is less like applying to GM’s young executive program in 1955 and more like trying to break into Hollywood.”

    I was very interested to see this sentence, because it immediately called to mind the notorious Hollywood “casting couch”. People being what they are — on the whole, not very nice — I’ll bet that it’s not only Clinton’s white-house interns who find themselves forced to deal with this sort of situation nowadays.

  • Luke Lea

    The Only Thing That Can Stop This Asteroid is Your Liberal Arts Degree.

  • Lorenz Gude

    I grew up on a farm no stranger to real work, but then went to an Ivy League college without the slightest idea of how to approach the world of non agricultural work. Oh I knew that shovels and hoes were not required but that was about it. I chose badly and was lucky to end up with a reasonable academic career. In retrospect I wish I had gone to one of the ‘co-op’ plan schools like Antioch or Northeastern where the program was to work and study alternate semesters. It took 5 years but I would have had a much better idea of work and my own likes and strengths.

  • Arthur E. Smith

    My grandson, a junior ME student, has been granted a “summer internship” with an international corporation. It pays more than twice minimum wage plus a mileage allowance. He had the resume to get an interview plus the chops to qualify, plus years of family support.

    Nowhere in the article or comments did I see credit for a STEM course.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Arthur E. Smith: The benefits of STEM courses are frequently discussed on the site, both in the posts and in the comments. Keep reading!

  • Koblog

    Really? School doesn’t prepare students for work? Impossible.

    How can this be when the majority, if not all, of the professors took degrees that made them suitable only to be…professors?

    Honestly, who in industry is going to hire a PhD in Gender Studies solely because she has multiple degrees in Gender Studies? So what does she do? Gets a job at a university, teaching this dreck to more suckers.

    Add to this the disdain heaped by the professoriat upon those with real-world experience should any of them seek to pass on their experience as teachers.

    I read of such a person who volunteered to teach FOR FREE and was rejected because the teacher’s union didn’t want the competition.

    Wouldn’t look good for a teacher who didn’t cost the district a dime to become beloved by the students and at the same time expose the myriad other hyper-expensive teachers as failures typical of our failed gubment ejamacation system.

  • thibaud

    Apprenticeships work for guilds that have legal privileges and statutory requirements for entry. Not sure that the guild model is best suited to our economy today.

    Maybe WRM meant “co-op education” instead of apprenticeships?

    Suggestion: it would be worth studying the German model of co-op or vocational education closely to see which aspects we can leverage in the US.

  • Roxeanne de Luca

    I had been doing some form of paid work every summer since the age of 15. The summer after my freshman year of college, I landed two jobs: one in accounting and one in an engineering firm. (I majored in engineering.) I was paid very well by 19-year-old standards, and continued with one of the companies until I started law school, moving my way up the pay scale.

    What shocked me, upon entering law school, was the expectation that I could and should work for free – i.e. less than I had been paid since the age of 15. Okay, I understand when it’s for a non-profit, as limited dollars can’t go to summer interns, but the expectation that a college-educated person in her mid-twenties who had earned 1.3 (or 1.67, depending on the summer), would work for free, is shocking.

    I’m also appalled at the “internship” system devised by many law schools, in which students will take on full-time, unpaid work for a semester’s worth of academic credit, and still have to pay full tuition to the school.

    I have nothing against hard work or paying your dues, but there comes a point at which it becomes ridiculous to ask people to work for free under the guise of mentoring them. The only advice I have is for students to avoid any field that expects anyone to work for free as a condition of entrance, unless it is a formal apprenticeship.

  • Roxeanne de Luca

    Ack, that should be “1.33 or 1.67 professional degrees”

  • J R Yankovic

    Given the increasingly high-octane quality of comment from the likes of Jim., thibaud, Luke Lea, Lorenz Gude, Ulysses S Rant and many others (BTW, any clues as to where Eurydice, nadine, Toni and WigWag might have disappeared to?) – PLUS the usual seasoned, (mostly) empirical optimism and common sense we’ve come to expect from Via Meadia – and you know, I think we just MAY be starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel.

    The commentary tunnel, anyway.

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