Clean Those Coffee-Mugs with Zest and Aplomb!

by Henry on September 12, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-09-12 at 9.32.40 AM

Advice on succeeding as a policy intern in Washington DC. Doubtless, this is entirely well meant. Very likely, it is good advice. But precisely to the extent it is good advice, it speaks volumes …

The number one thing that ensures a “way in” to this town/field is an internship- which are typically unpaid and last about 6 months. … While internships aren’t exactly paid in cash, they are paid in networks, and those networks are worth more than money.) … So there is a lot of competition about “who’s smarter than who” or “who produces more.” A little secret: one of the ways to get ahead is to take some of that energy and just be kind and helpful. Cleaning coffee mugs with a good attitude gets you noticed. Then people realize you are smart and read your stuff. … recognize that your 40-hours-a-week is simply the cost of entry. If you really want to leverage your internship, expect to work a lot more (though no one will tell you that, because I’m pretty sure that legally they can’t) … I was fortunate enough that I could incur the cost of not earning an income for 6 months; some of my fellow interns ended up doing all of that and then waiting tables until 2am…crazy, I know! Just think of it as if you’re Andrea Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada, except hopefully your boss is much nicer (mine certainly was!) and your shoes probably shouldn’t cost as much (though if you are in the market, here’s some worth investing in if you are going to be running around this city and want to look uber professional: http://www.zappos.com/cole-haan-chelsea-low-pump-black-patent?zfcTest=fcl%3A0)

{ 120 comments }

1

Zamfir 09.12.13 at 1:52 pm

That’s an ugly pair of shoes

2

Anderson 09.12.13 at 2:00 pm

Oh, the shoes are fine, for anyone with $300 to spend on shoes.

But it’s already obvious that internships are for the rich.

3

SamChevre 09.12.13 at 2:02 pm

I don’t know–sounds like reasonable advice (even for paid professionals) to me. (Certainly in my workplace, an insurance company, people who clean the coffee pot occasionally are better-liked than people who always leave it dirty–and yes, people notice. I perceive it, and think others do as well, that leaving a mess for others to clean up is perceived as abusing status.)

4

Barry 09.12.13 at 2:46 pm

“I don’t know–sounds like reasonable advice (even for paid professionals) to me.”

That’s the least of it. The real takeaways are (1) you’ve got to be able to work for free for six months to a year, to have a hope of a paid job and (2) you’ve got to work 80 hours/week for a year.

5

christian_h 09.12.13 at 3:03 pm

Yeah… this speaks for itself. Only rich people can run for congress, only rich kids can become staffers. To me this, as much or more than campaign finance issues, cements the rule of money in DC.

6

mud man 09.12.13 at 3:03 pm

There’s a difference between cleaning the coffee POT and cleaning the coffee MUGS.

7

Trader Joe 09.12.13 at 3:14 pm

@4
That’s life in the big city.

You want the plum job, the power position, the big salary potential you gotta give out some free samples of what you’re made of.

For Doctors its being an intern and a resident, for other professions its an internship an apprentice, an adjunct or an ‘associate’ the hours are crazy, the pay (if any) on a per hour basis is poor, and oh, by the way, if you don’t look the part with the wardrobe, manners and work ethic you aren’t gonna make it cause there will be someone else who will.

While surely there are cases where people get these jobs by nepotism or other backdoor means – most are earned through sweat equity and the system perpetuates itself because so many of those who are the deciders now were once the grunts and “it was good enough for me, so its good enough for you.”

You don’t have to like it, but “paying ones dues” is the way of countless professions and it has its pros and cons.

8

ajay 09.12.13 at 3:20 pm

7: there is a difference between “when you start in this job, you’ll inevitably have to work hard at not very pleasant jobs for not very much money” and “when you start in this job, you’ll inevitably have to work hard at not very pleasant jobs for free”. The first is true of virtually every job. The second emphatically isn’t.
You’re also misusing the phrase “sweat equity”. The point about sweat equity – what makes it OK – is that it’s equity. You don’t get that from interning.

9

Doug 09.12.13 at 3:23 pm

I wonder how many of these internships violate federal labor law?

10

nihil obstet 09.12.13 at 3:30 pm

Oh, really? People see a woman cleaning coffee mugs and think, “She’s smart”? I think I’ll read her stuff? The system described seems to work on stereotypes. Helpfulness may advance the person who fits the stereotype of the successful, but I’d guess that for those who fail in race, gender, accent, background, taking on relatively menial tasks simply solidifies their position as support staff, not leadership material.

11

Trader Joe 09.12.13 at 3:32 pm

Maybe ‘equity’ isn’t the best term – but no one would take an internship if you got nothing out of it. People take the job to get something – it just doesn’t fold and have dead presidents on it. I don’t know a better term than ‘sweat equity’ but thats the gist of it – you give labor and you get something of value, just not money.

As the OP said, its contacts, referals, and networks that get you the real gig – in DC its the lobbyists or consultants most of the time, in NYC finance, in law, advertising, accounting etc. its different still – sometimes with the firm that provides the internship, sometimes not.

The point is, your internship and more importantly the related referal letters, provide future buyers of your labor a “seal of approval” – I’m not saying this is never abused, what I’m saying is that it has a value to empoyer and employee which is why it persists.

12

Mao Cheng Ji 09.12.13 at 3:44 pm

” The system described seems to work on stereotypes”

Not stereotypes; it works for conformists, doesn’t work for the troublemakers. Naturally.

13

Jerry Vinokurov 09.12.13 at 3:48 pm

Medical interns and residents don’t work for free.

Also the vast majority of internships are pretty much illegal.

14

Anon 09.12.13 at 3:48 pm

Trader Joe,

You use a kind of language I hear frequently from self-described “realists” that never quite makes sense to me. For example: “You don’t have to like it, but…it has its pros and cons.”

First, there’s a dubious element of moralistic fatalism: that’s the way it is, face it. But that implies that you *do* “have to” at least accept it and that you might as well like it. If so, then the sentiment is false: we don’t have to like it or accept it. We can choose to resist it and change it.

Second, there’s a dubious moral neutrality at best, relativism at worst: “there are pros and cons, but let’s not ask if the pros really outweigh the cons.” The question is precisely whether the cons in this case are truly egregious. The problem isn’t that the system is sometimes abused, nor that it’s bad to make someone prove their worth at their own cost before getting the reward. The really big “con” (in every sense) is the extraordinarily high cost of entry to the opportunity to prove worth–one that automatically excludes the majority of the population.

Yeah, “you give labor and you get something of value.” But the question is 1) does everyone have this opportunity to give and get and 2) is the get proportional to the give.

And those are the old questions of 1) class and 2) exploitation.

15

Zamfir 09.12.13 at 3:51 pm

There’s s huge, huge difference between unpaid internships, and lowly paid internships that allow you to scrape by without another income source.

Important organizations could easily pay interns the latter. If they do not, it’s on purpose. It’s because its acts as a filter against the wrong type of people, i.e. those without rich parents.

Same for 300 dollar shoes. You can take it for granted that interns are not dressed to the standards of well-paid professionals, or value interns who wear the right clothes. Lots of organizations do the first
.

And these are just identifiable symptoms. You can bet that there are lots of subtler barriers. People who are more easily identified as ‘promising’, if they behave like proper people. Importsnt social events that are comfortable to some, and awkward to others. Etc.

The equity analogy is seriously misleading. That’s an explict deal: you do the work, you get something. Internships have an implicit deal: you do something, you might get something. If you’re from the right background, the odds that you will get something are far higher.

16

Meredith 09.12.13 at 3:53 pm

At least internships in medicine and law pay something (and some in law pay very well indeed). Would it really cost other kinds of enterprise so much to pay interns enough to scrape by? Perhaps then these other enterprises, having made an investment of money, would more consistently make good use of their interns and mentor them properly (as the legal and medical professions generally do).
As for shoes: those are called pumps? They look like spike heels to me. At least if you’re going to be expected to wear such shoes (and I believe women are — but why in the world are they so expected, in this day and age?), Cole Haan shoes tend to be more comfortable than most (part of what you’re paying for).

17

Ronan(rf) 09.12.13 at 3:55 pm

“There’s s huge, huge difference between unpaid internships, and lowly paid internships that allow you to scrape by without another income source.”

I dont know, is there really? Moneys important of course, but even if it was paid I doubt you’d get a more socio-economically diverse workforce. Class, geography, family networks etc and all those other little acts of exclusion close out any possibility of getting one of these jobs to 95% of the countrys population. Making them paid might make them more accessible to a tiny sliver of the middle/upper middle class, but that would be about it, Id assume.

18

Ronan(rf) 09.12.13 at 4:00 pm

What would make them more accesssible is going to schools in the projects with fully funded scholarships and mentors to explain in deatil the process of getting a job like this. Theres no reason that a working class kid in DC with a high school degree, but not going to university, couldnt be fast tracked into one of these programs (while living at home, or whatever)
Perhaps they do this. I dont know

19

Zamfir 09.12.13 at 4:27 pm

Ronan, its importance is not just as a barrier in itself, but also a symptom. It’s a sign that people in the organization rarely say ‘I got these promising interns, but they have troubling coping with the double workload and might quit. Then I would be left with just the spoilt rich kids’. It implies that people are very happy with having mostly rich kids, and do not feel they are missing out on valuable talent.

20

Meredith 09.12.13 at 4:36 pm

Colleges and universities of all types devote enormous resources these days to guiding students in choosing and applying for internships. They also work closely with alums. Wealthier institutions, at least, often provide fellowships for students who otherwise could not afford to undertake internships (including many students who are from economically marginal families), and they may help out in other ways, too (e.g., helping students arrange/find affordable housing, or providing it if the internship is on or near campus).

For me, all this raises serious questions about higher education’s proper role as a job-training and job-resource center. But at least at wealthier private institutions and many public ones, it’s not just middle- or upper-middle-class students who get to take advantage of internships (though, of course, wealthier students continue to have advantages).

21

Andrew Burday 09.12.13 at 4:53 pm

nihil obstet, 10, “taking on relatively menial tasks simply solidifies their position as support staff”. No doubt you’re often right about that. However, for the groups you describe, refusing to take on menial tasks surely gets them classified as arrogant, uppity, not team players. So possibly damned if you do, definitely damned if you don’t, and the OP (on the other site) was offering good advice — which is, again, revealing.

My favorite part of the whole post is her use of the word “investment” for a pair of patent leather medium-heel pumps, with a bit of a platform under the foot. Again, I’m sure she’s right. Again, it’s revealing.

22

bianca steele 09.12.13 at 4:59 pm

If you’re an unpaid intern doing a job that pays minimum wage, has hundreds of people doing it, and has no more than a handful (and possible zero) positions above it that an entry level person can move into, you’re in the position of someone hoping to be “discovered” by hanging around the back door and doing odd jobs. Those are jobs like set dresser, not personal assistant to Anna Wintour. The unpaid set dressers are hoping if they work hard, they’ll be given personal access to someone like Anna Wintour, and that person will make them a personal assistant. Or they’ll be given personal access to an editor, and the editor will let them work for free as a blog assistant, and after three years either a paid editorial assistant or an unpaid blogger for another three or more years. There’s no actual job path from set dresser to editorial staff. It’s opportunities to be in the right place at the right time and make the right connections, to get on a different and more exclusive entry level track.

There are jobs with dues paying and career tracks, and in some of those it helps to make coffee and do all kinds of things. In any entry level job it pays to take a crappy task and do it better anyway. It helps to work extra hours. It helps to take your turn straightening up the kitchen. But figuring out who’s committed from who works extra hours is different from figuring out who to fire based on who works fewer than 80 hours a week or once failed to answer a text promptly at midnight when a somewhat important person happened to feel irritable. And some of this advice sounds like, “there are more jobs cleaning kitchens than editing blog posts, so your best bet is to clean the kitchen really well.”

Meredith: Those have been pumps for at least 20 years, I think? I wouldn’t call shoes with square heels pumps at all, or rather I haven’t seen pumps without narrow heels since I was a teenager, at least before the platforms came in.

23

Phil 09.12.13 at 5:04 pm

I got chatting with a gallery owner at an opening once, years ago, and asked how much a gallery assistant got paid (I was unhappily employed in IT at the time & curious about anything in The Arts). He named a figure which boggled my mind, it was so far below what I was getting as a fairly junior programmer. When I commented he explained that this was entirely by design – he was selecting for people with rich parents, because they’d bring their parents and their parents’ friends through the door of the gallery.

Most businesses don’t have such a direct payoff from employing rich kids, but – if you want to sell things and make money – having rich kids on the premises is rarely a bad idea.

24

bianca steele 09.12.13 at 5:06 pm

Not too long ago, there would be a handful of college students in the office over the summer, and they’d do real work at a basic level and often also things like copying to some extent. They’d be paid, and if they did well, there would be a good chance they’d have a leg up for the expected entry-level positions, or a reference for fairly numerous entry-level positions elsewhere. They weren’t taking the place of entry-level people or secretarial staff, and they weren’t expected to work for free or stay at the entry level for years at a time. Recent college graduates were expected to have been promoted within a year or two, and weren’t expected to waste their precious training years making coffee. I think what’s going on now, in some industries, is at a totally different level.

25

Phil 09.12.13 at 5:08 pm

Pumps? Low pumps? You’ve got to be kidding. These are pumps.

26

MPAVictoria 09.12.13 at 5:12 pm

So has Trader Joe always been such a… lets say spreader of rightwing, bootstrappy propaganda?

27

mpowell 09.12.13 at 5:12 pm

Yeah, you don’t have to like it. We could, alternatively, actually enforce the law against unpaid internships. Even without requiring that the intern bring suit (which is kind of absurd since the intern most likely loses big time from bringing a suit and the whole point of the law is to prevent a situation where the under-privileged are obliged to participate or suffer even worse outcomes). And the world would be better because of it. The working long hours for crappy pay to get into a field thing is unavoidable (and maybe has its benefits). But working for nothing or minimum wage to gain entry to a lucrative field? I see neither the benefits to society or to anyone for that matter.

28

mpowell 09.12.13 at 5:14 pm

MPAVictoria@27, Trader Joe has expressed a range of opinions that I’ve read. I disagree with him on this issue but don’t consider him a rightwing reactionary as a result.

29

Rmj 09.12.13 at 5:19 pm

The point is, your internship and more importantly the related referal letters, provide future buyers of your labor a “seal of approval” – I’m not saying this is never abused, what I’m saying is that it has a value to empoyer and employee which is why it persists.

So long as you can work for free for a year, and afford $300 shoes (with clothes to match, I assume).

So, yeah, this is just the free market chuggin’ along, giving them that’s got access to the levers of power and money, and them that’s not…well, as the Bible says, they shall lose.

And what’re ya gonna do about that?

30

MPAVictoria 09.12.13 at 5:19 pm

” Trader Joe has expressed a range of opinions that I’ve read. I disagree with him on this issue but don’t consider him a rightwing reactionary as a result.”

Well this is why I found it surprising that he is basically saying suck it up and work fore free. Though I think it is fair to call his post rightwing and reactionary.

31

bianca steele 09.12.13 at 5:26 pm

Having just read the blog post linked in the OP, I’m surprised at the discussion. You could rewrite it as something like: there are two career paths, fellow, which requires a Ph.D. and government experience, and research associate, which requires an MA, six months to a couple years in an unpaid clerical position, and extra time learning to write stuff that you hope people will like. That’s not quite the same as, “just get an internship and work lots of hours and do lots of scut work in the office, and you’ll stand out from those who don’t make the cut.”

32

Anderson 09.12.13 at 5:33 pm

25: “pumps” does not mean “sneakers” in America, tho my Shorter OED suggests that UK usage is as you say. Am. Heritage Dict: “a woman’s shoe that has medium or high heels and no fastenings.”

There are no “fuck-me plimsolls.” Or if there are, keep your fetish to yourself!

33

SamChevre 09.12.13 at 5:57 pm

The whole “internships should all be paid” meme seems to be assuming that the alternative to an internship is a job; if one compares it to a Master’s degree, the economics look far more reasonable. (I was about as far from “rich” as you could get, but I did do a 1-month unpaid internship for my Congressman; it was interesting, and convinced me I never wanted to work professionally in politics.)

34

William Timberman 09.12.13 at 5:59 pm

The Suck-Up Society. The If You’re Not General Alexander, You’re Little People Society. The We’re Number One, With A Bullet Society. (Comma optional) The Indispensable Nation Society. Gagworthy, all of it.

Stakhanovites were boring then, and they’re boring now, even after the exchange of tractors and triphammers for bluetooth headsets.

35

Trader Joe 09.12.13 at 6:02 pm

I doubt I’ll convince anyone, but I’ll lob in one last thought.

What is that these interns do that actually provide any value to their organizations such that they deserve much in the way of pay? In general they have few real work skills, they are there to observe and learn by observation – they bill no hours, the do nothing that rings the cash register and in fact suck up time from productive resources that could be spent on such activities. Many companies don’t bother.

The companies that do bother, do it to identify people that might add value upon further training. People with creativity, initiative, good work habits, personality – all stuff that is hard to access in a 1 hr interview, but which tends to become apparent over a multi-week internship. Its precisely to give opportunity to people who might be better employees in reality than might appear obvious on paper or in a one off interview.

Once hired, the person will draw a paycheck and more money will be spent on training and mentoring. The further training will also have a cost – an outlay in real time and real dollars to make said person a value to the organization. In most professional environments you’re pretty happy if you can break-even on a new hire inside of a year, maybe 18months. Even then, usually more than one third quit for any number of reasons in which case the return on the effort is negative.

Jobs aren’t costless to an organization.

Likewise, there’s no question that some intern programs are run in a manner which contravenes laws (i.e doing work that should be paid for but isn’t). I doubt the internship described in the OP is that way, but if it is than fine – I’m against breaking laws and slave labor.

Most are not like that. Most are designed as something of a test drive between labor seller and labor buyer. No one would commit to a $50,000 car without a test drive – why commit to a +$50,000 salary without one either. This isn’t about whether the firm should hire people to clean coffee mugs – its about whether it should invest substantial resources in employees that over the short run are worthless, but over the mid- to long term add value to an organization in a variety of ways.

Again, I doubt I’ll persuade anyone why these systems do and should exist. Given the stack of applicants begging to get the opportunities even for zero pay – there must be some value involved to the people who take the jobs, it would be irrational for so many to give away their time for “nothing”

36

Barry 09.12.13 at 6:03 pm

“The whole “internships should all be paid” meme seems to be assuming that the alternative to an internship is a job; if one compares it to a Master’s degree, the economics look far more reasonable.”

Unless a Master’s is required. From the original linked article:

“But I’ve also seen that internships-turned-jobs tend to go to the interns who started with a masters. “

37

rea 09.12.13 at 6:07 pm

God knows men’s business attire is uncomfortable and impractical, but at least we’re not expected to wear high heels.

38

Meredith 09.12.13 at 6:16 pm

From talking to students over the years about their summer or J-term internships, and from hearing tales of my husband’s students (at a state college that often gives academic credit for internships at all times of the year): an internship where you end up washing coffee mugs is usually a bad internship, and it will go on to the college’s or department’s list of such quickly. (Too late, though, for the reporting students.)
I’m not sure when these internships became a near-necessary part of resume-building, btw, but as useful as they can be for students as genuine learning experiences, I’ve long been bothered by all this, comforted only by the fact that, where I teach, we’ve been able to use college support for summer internships as leverage in arguing for more college support for students going to archaeological field schools or pursuing intensive foreign language study in the summer.

39

Layman 09.12.13 at 6:22 pm

Trader Joe @ 35

‘Given the stack of applicants begging to get the opportunities even for zero pay – there must be some value involved to the people who take the jobs, it would be irrational for so many to give away their time for “nothing”.’

Sure, but that’s not a particularly strong argument. If indentured servitude for 6 months is a prerequisite for getting a paying job, people who want paying jobs will become indentured servants. That doesn’t mean the servants see much ‘value’ in servitude; it means they have no choice in the matter.

40

MPAVictoria 09.12.13 at 6:35 pm

“Again, I doubt I’ll persuade anyone why these systems do and should exist”

Should exist? That is very telling. Very telling indeed.

41

Rmj 09.12.13 at 6:38 pm

What is that these interns do that actually provide any value to their organizations such that they deserve much in the way of pay?

Something, or they wouldn’t be there. Unless businesses are run like governments, and everybody has a job but does nothing because that’s how governments roll.

The companies that do bother, do it to identify people that might add value upon further training. People with creativity, initiative, good work habits, personality – all stuff that is hard to access in a 1 hr interview, but which tends to become apparent over a multi-week internship. Its precisely to give opportunity to people who might be better employees in reality than might appear obvious on paper or in a one off interview.

And if they are worth having around, they are worth paying. “The laborer is worthy of his hire” is an idea that goes back to at least the 1st century. Or is that old-fashioned thinking, now?

Once hired, the person will draw a paycheck and more money will be spent on training and mentoring. The further training will also have a cost – an outlay in real time and real dollars to make said person a value to the organization. In most professional environments you’re pretty happy if you can break-even on a new hire inside of a year, maybe 18months. Even then, usually more than one third quit for any number of reasons in which case the return on the effort is negative.

Or they’ll get fired. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Jobs aren’t costless to an organization.

Nor to employees, either. They don’t get hired because the organization has a kind heart and is a soft touch.

Likewise, there’s no question that some intern programs are run in a manner which contravenes laws (i.e doing work that should be paid for but isn’t). I doubt the internship described in the OP is that way, but if it is than fine – I’m against breaking laws and slave labor.

Well, I know I feel a lot better now. At least interns aren’t bought and sold; but then again, slaves never got paid…..
Most are not like that. Most are designed as something of a test drive between labor seller and labor buyer. No one would commit to a $50,000 car without a test drive – why commit to a +$50,000 salary without one either. This isn’t about whether the firm should hire people to clean coffee mugs – its about whether it should invest substantial resources in employees that over the short run are worthless, but over the mid- to long term add value to an organization in a variety of ways.

Again, I doubt I’ll persuade anyone why these systems do and should exist. Given the stack of applicants begging to get the opportunities even for zero pay – there must be some value involved to the people who take the jobs, it would be irrational for so many to give away their time for “nothing”

42

Rmj 09.12.13 at 6:39 pm

And blame the rest of that on lousy editing….

43

Trader Joe 09.12.13 at 6:43 pm

@42
See….if you were my intern, I’d know you were lousy at editing and I’d know not to hire you for a task that involved it.

Far better I should pay you to do a lousy job and then fire you?

44

Pascal Leduc 09.12.13 at 7:04 pm

In Canada it is illegal to take a free intern and use them for any financially useful task. Everything an intern does can only be for training purposes. Thus very few companies get unpaid interns and thus instead you get lots of internships that pay minimum wage or a bit better.

Those really dont bother me that much. After all once you prove that you are a good worker they kinda have to give you a raise as with those low wages you are bound to get poached.

45

Meredith 09.12.13 at 7:07 pm

Trader Joe@43: If an Rmj were writing on assignment from you to help you in your tasks, yes, you should pay him, even if he does not perform as well as you would like. And if he were your young intern, you should also talk with him, in a supportive manner, about the importance of editing well, so he could benefit from having worked for you. Maybe you’d find that, with a little helpful mentoring, he became a very attractive potential regular employee.
If interns cannot expect guidance and mentorship, they should not be called “interns.”

46

MPAVictoria 09.12.13 at 7:12 pm

“Far better I should pay you to do a lousy job and then fire you?”

As opposed to never paying him in the first place? How kind of you.

47

Trader Joe 09.12.13 at 7:22 pm

Maybe people are unclear on what it is that most interns do.

These aren’t people who are digging holes in the ground on a hot day, designing bridges or developing the next iPhone. Mostly they are bright college kids who might think they want to go into – accounting, marketing, finance, policy analysis….whatever, but really don’t have much idea what that is or what people do all day in those jobs – all they know is they will soon have some degree and a butt load of debt that they better figure out how to get a job to pay for.

An intern’s day falls into two broad categories – doing menial work that lightens the load for an existing employee (most likely last year’s intern) and which involves a minimal level of supervision and the slenderest chances of having consequences if screwed up. Filing, copying, running basic errands, waiting for things to be delivered stuff like that. Sometimes they might get to fill numbers into a worksheet – provided there is no way it could get screwed up.

If the intern wasn’t doing it, most likely it either wouldn’t get done (like washing the mugs) or would get done by an existing employee for no additional compensation since said employee is salaried. The benefit of having the intern do these things is that the slightly more experienced employee – who may by now actually have some skills worth using on something more meaningful – is freed up to do such things.

Beyond that, if it’s a good internship, there will be some opportunity to vaguely participate around the fringes of some actual work. Maybe they get to sit in some meetings, or look at drafts of something, see a presentation get made etc. Stuff where the intern can get an idea of whether this is a job they actually want to do and give their energies to, or its just a job that will help pay down their debt that’s better than Starbucks.

An intern is usually assigned a mentor. Predictably some are good and some aren’t. A good one should help answer some questions as arise about how things work and who does what. They might even listen to some creative ideas the intern has. Usually there is a part of the program where the intern is rotated to different areas of the firm so they make a variety of contacts and can see lots of different jobs.

Some mentors are lousy – they ask the intern to pick up their dry cleaning and lunch, don’t let them near anything worthwhile and never introduce them to anyone. In those cases, I’d fully agree the intern is getting screwed by the system.

The #1 payoff for the intern is a job at the place they interned. The second-prize would be the chance to put “Interned at XYZ” on their CV alongside of a bunch of puffed up accomplishments. Employers all know this is bull – but also know that this person at least survived an internship at XYZ and still wants a job in the field and maybe, just maybe, might pick-up their training a little quicker.

I’ve been an intern. I’ve mentored interns. I’ve hired interns. I’ve said ‘Whewwww” I’m so glad this person was just an intern and not an employee….The system, if managed correctly, works very well (IMO) for all concerned.

If managed poorly – yes, it can be unfair to the intern. But don’t take just one side of it. There are cases where employers spend effort on trying to find good interns, begin training them and give them every opportunity only to have that intern join a rival. There’s no sure thing for either side which is why a “test drive” of the arrangement makes sense.

I get the points about classism – in general I’m speaking to jobs that demand a college degree, not “open employment” opportunities. Its true copying doesn’t require a degree, but the internship isn’t about what the person is able to do now – its what they are able to do later that’s being auditioned. The internship isn’t about throwing up barriers to opportunity its about making hires that work for both employer and employee. I’m sorry if some refuse to see this.

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MPAVictoria 09.12.13 at 7:27 pm

“Maybe people are unclear on what it is that most interns do.”

Maybe you are generalizing from your own situation? Maybe you are justifying current power structures that devalue work and workers? Maybe you are just a tool?

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Trader Joe 09.12.13 at 7:40 pm

@48
How can anyone do anything but generalize from their own understandings?

You can reach your own conclusion about whether the power structure devalues workers. Having been an intern – I played the risk of that vs. the potential reward and chose what I chose and am happy with my decisions. Other will have different outcomes and different views on those outcomes.

The woman in the OP didn’t sound devalued – she sounded somewhat excited about the opportunity to hobnob around policy analysts, wear expensive shoes and polish coffee mugs.

If that’s not you – chose a different path – there’s more than one way to get to nearly any destination. There are far more people who are in their current job having not interned than having interned. Don’t make it sound like these are one-way systems, apart from the medical profession and legal (where interns tend to always be paid) I know of no field where the internship is a firm gate and the only way inside.

A tool? Maybe. But I believe in my own experiences as lived and can recognize the weaknesses when I see them. I don’t think I’ve said the system has no weaknesses – I said it has plusses and minuses that can be managed to mutual benefit.

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MPAVictoria 09.12.13 at 7:46 pm

“You can reach your own conclusion about whether the power structure devalues workers. Having been an intern – I played the risk of that vs. the potential reward and chose what I chose and am happy with my decisions. Other will have different outcomes and different views on those outcomes.”
Typical conservative argument; I’ve got mine so fuck you.

“The woman in the OP didn’t sound devalued – she sounded somewhat excited about the opportunity to hobnob around policy analysts, wear expensive shoes and polish coffee mugs.”
She was lucky enough to be able to afford to work for free for six months. Most of us are not. I find it appalling that you are defending a system that excludes a vast number of young people based on familial wealth. Why don’t we just start granting titles of nobility and have done with it?

“If that’s not you – chose a different path – there’s more than one way to get to nearly any destination. There are far more people who are in their current job having not interned than having interned. Don’t make it sound like these are one-way systems, apart from the medical profession and legal (where interns tend to always be paid) I know of no field where the internship is a firm gate and the only way inside.”
So basically agree to work for free or find another job. How about instead we actually enforce the law and require these incredibly wealthy organizations to pay workers for working.

I worked as an Intern and, contrary to your experience, I produced valuable work and was compensated for my time. Maybe if your Interns are not producing valuable work the problem lies with you?

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Mao Cheng Ji 09.12.13 at 7:46 pm

The outrage would’ve been appropriate if unpaid internship was a requirement for getting hired. But it isn’t.

The fact that upper middle class has an advantage is not at all surprising, and indeed it it’s a feature rather than a bug. Being shocked seems a bit naive.

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MPAVictoria 09.12.13 at 7:50 pm

“The fact that upper middle class has an advantage is not at all surprising, and indeed it it’s a feature rather than a bug. Being shocked seems a bit naive.”

Not shocked, appalled.

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Tom Slee 09.12.13 at 8:04 pm

I currently supervise interns (“co-op students” here) who are part way through an undergraduate degree (usually computer science), and so have less experience than the ones in the article. If I gave them the kind of task that Trader Joe does, I’d be run out of town. At my workplace we have about 30 to 40 interns every semester. They get paid, find their way, and do useful work. It’s not that difficult.

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Mao Cheng Ji 09.12.13 at 8:04 pm

Upper middle class, by definition, can afford better food, clothing, transportation, housing, healthcare, education, etc. I understand (and I am) being appalled by the excesses of the super-rich: personal jets, servants, mansions, but this one doesn’t seem like one of those things. At least these young people want to get a job, that’s something…

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adam.smith 09.12.13 at 8:12 pm

The whole black&white isn’t terribly helpful.
I think internships taken while you’re studying, three month or less duration and with a significant teaching component are perfectly legit, even if they’re unpaid. Having talked to a number of people supervising interns, the tenor is typically that the net average immediate benefit is zero – some turn out to be significant help after two weeks, some are still a drag at the end of twelve. I believe organizations should make an effort to pay interns, both as a matter of social responsibility and for enlightened self-interest: Paid, informative, pre-degree internship are certainly common in fields that aren’t exactly known for disregarding economic calculations (consulting, large law firms, e.g.). Still, if a small NGO, e.g., takes the risk of taking on an intern for the summer and they really can’t afford to pay her/him, but both hope to get something out of it, I think that’s fine. Universities are in the best position to monitor and potentially blacklist such summer internships and I think they should do more of that.

But six months unpaid internships for someone with a graduate degree is just exploitation. No one can tell me that you can’t train someone competent in three months. And the fact that this is common in politically influential fields – media and policy – is indeed troubling.

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mpowell 09.12.13 at 8:17 pm

I also have been an intern and have supervised interns. They get paid (much less than a regular employee) and we try to give them more useful tasks than filing paperwork. I’m not sure how much you can learn about someone that way. If they don’t earn their pay then the company files it away as a recruiting and indentifying talent expense. If the job you are trying to fill is actually important, the company can afford the expense of paying interns at least minimum wage. Labor law exists to force them to do things like this so the costs of training and identifying talent are not born by the vulnerable. And no, using an intern to do useful office work for free as part of an extended interview process is not actually legal. The only reason it has been happening without penalty is that the damages in cases like this do not remotely approach the legal fees and, in any regard, do not benefit the intern that would be bringing suit.

And all this is especially pertinent for a 6 month post-graduate position as opposed to a 3 month over the summer job.

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MPAVictoria 09.12.13 at 8:17 pm

“At least these young people want to get a job, that’s something…”

What young people do you know that don’t want jobs?

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dsquared 09.12.13 at 8:23 pm

I have come, after much thought on this subject, to the position that the purpose of an internship is to build up a kind of negative sweat equity. It’s not so much that you’re doing something nasty for the organisation in order that they will reward you, but more that you’re going through a series of menial and unpleasant tasks in order that cognitive dissonance will set in and you will be more loyal to them. It’s a hazing process, like the ones that have been independently discovered by more or less every organised group from the British Army to the Sioux to every trading desk ever.

It has the useful consequence of building camaderie and morale, and the bad consequence of being a pretty fucking stupid way to live your life. So I say – send the intern out for coffee. It’s what he’s for.

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Trader Joe 09.12.13 at 8:24 pm

@50
“You can reach your own conclusion about whether the power structure devalues workers. Having been an intern – I played the risk of that vs. the potential reward and chose what I chose and am happy with my decisions. Other will have different outcomes and different views on those outcomes.”
Typical conservative argument; I’ve got mine so fuck you.

I don’t see it that way at all. I worked for what I got. I invested in my own opportunity and made it happen. I worked nights busing tables and doing dishes to pay my way. I bagged groceries, carried a union card as did my father and mother, and cut grass in the summer. I tutored people on the weekends, ate piles of rammen noodles and shared a flat with five guys – don’t tell me about being elittist. Nothing was handed me – I earned it and I know others can too.

I should say also that I’ve seen pretty well every race and nationality come through intern programs – men and women in fairly equal numbers too….

People want companies to hand them something – they are. Something for their resume and some experiences they can use – not the overpriced theoretical crap they get in their fancy university classes.

If you did real work in your internship – I’m glad you got real pay. I hope your employer was pleased – many are not. Too many college kids act like entitled brats, not people willing to earn what is being offered.

If its a conservite agrument – so be it. Don’t let utopia stand in the way of a ‘win-win’ way of doing things. As I said – there are many ways to get a job you want an internship is just one of them – no one makes these kids do this, its a choice among many they can make.

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dsquared 09.12.13 at 8:25 pm

we try to give them more useful tasks than filing paperwork

Who does the filing of paperwork in your place and what is their career progression like? Filing paperwork is actually an extremely useful and important job in any workplace that generates paper which needs to be filed. I wouldn’t give it to an intern because I wouldn’t trust them to not screw it up. After all, when someone writes a stupid position paper you can just chuck it away, but if they misfile a contract then it’s going to be a pain in the ass for months.

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Kindred Winecoff 09.12.13 at 8:30 pm

Not all interns/apprentices are unpaid. Many skilled professions that require internships that are paid — doctors, lawyers, computer scientists — have come up in this thread. The wannabe policymaker/wonk is unpaid because every half-clever 24 year old who has seen a handful of West Wing episodes wants to work in that world. Seriously… have you been to NW lately? Supply of this type of bright young thing, which is drawn to power structures like a moth to a flame, is not exactly scarce. And when you increase supply while holding demand constant the results are predictable.

The ones who can do math get paid. The ones who have real area expertise or language skills or relevant experience (often) get paid. The ones who are just attracted by the halls of power are not.

Frankly, I don’t want even more people to be attracted to DC. I’d rather them do something more productive with their lives. So I’m happy for the DC intern to be unpaid, because I don’t want them to be encouraged. If they’re cleaning coffee mugs with a master’s degree then they are not essential components of the functioning of the Republic. If that means rich kids are cleaning coffee mugs for free, well that sounds like something approaching social justice to me.

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adam.smith 09.12.13 at 8:33 pm

@Trader – you say:
“there are many ways to get a job you want an internship is just one of them”
that’s definitely true in many fields, but my impression is that policy work in DC is very much the exception. Are you in a DC policy shop? Otherwise, your experience doesn’t really seem applicable to the problem at hand.

“Too many college kids act like entitled brats, not people willing to earn what is being offered.”
except, as people have repeated many times and you continue to ignore, this isn’t about college kids. It’s about adults with masters degrees.

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adam.smith 09.12.13 at 8:40 pm

@Kindred – well, but in the longterm, the people in DC make the rules (and, given revolving doors, good money). Sure, you can say people should take out loans for those internships if they pay out over the long term, but even if they qualified – which many poorer kids likely don’t – that’s always more of a theoretical than a practical solution. I think it _is_ vital for the functioning of the republic that policy elites aren’t made up of a narrow sliver of the economic elite.

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Trader Joe 09.12.13 at 8:46 pm

@62
I was not under the impression that any facet of this discussion was so narrowly limited. People upstrand were condemning all internship programs – graduate and undergraduate, with the condemnations centering around charges of elitism/classism and lack of pay.

I don’t have direct experience with masters candidates and whether they could contribute relevant work that would be worth paying for – no doubt in many fields, such as computer science noted above, they can.

To me, that’s the hurdle – is the employer providing experience/training and getting “little to nothing” or is the employer getting valuable work done which should be paid for and also getting a look at qualified employees.

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geo 09.12.13 at 9:34 pm

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bianca steele 09.12.13 at 9:40 pm

I spoke too soon about the shoes. I was in Clark’s this afternoon and they have pumps with 2″ squarish heels, and buckle decorations on the side. Probably not what the typical twenty-something professional in a city on the eastern seaboard would be wearing, though.

I think I’ve run into men online who seem to be under a literarily-misinformed misimpression that pumps are some specially fancy, sexy shoes.

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Meredith 09.12.13 at 9:51 pm

This whole discussion, and the link provided by geo, remind me of the larger context in which we should perhaps be thinking about internships at every level (a context I alluded to in an earlier comment), namely: are employers expected to pay for training their employees, or is the taxpayer (via publicly funded schools and some forms of financial aid), or is the academy (e.g., private colleges’ private sources of income), or the employee her/himself (whether through tuition or non- or low-paying internships)? Presumably some mix is needed and appropriate, a mix that isn’t easy to work out, but in recent years employers have increasingly depended on anyone but themselves to shoulder the costs of educating employees, as if this were their right. Certainly helps their bottom line.

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adam.smith 09.12.13 at 9:59 pm

Well @64 – your first comment was before anything that could be perceived as a blanket condemnation of internships. You were reacting to the article, although the situations that you’re aware of have very little to do with what this is about. You talk about college kids – the article is about people who have _finished_ graduate degrees (not candidates). You talk about fields where an internship is only one way among many, the first sentence of advice linked to is that “I would say that the number one thing that ensures a “way in” to this town/field is an internship” Presumably – since you talk about college kids – you talk about 3months, the article is about 6months internships etc.

So your defense of internships is about something only vaguely related to the post at hand and initially you gave no indication that you were actually talking about something entirely different than anyone else.

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bianca steele 09.12.13 at 10:08 pm

Who does the filing of paperwork in your place and what is their career progression like?

This is the important question, I think. Where I’ve worked, for example, supervisors are who makes (made) copies, because they are the ones with copies to make. Technical staff doesn’t have managerial/clerical tasks delegated to them. There are places that separate those job functions. Some of them have career paths from professional to management. Some of them see the professional staff as infra dig and not really the jobs that count no matter how far up they go, how well known they are in the field, and how many degrees and publications they have. Some of them have shadow career paths in some number of professionals are hired who are members of the economic elite and so can be promoted to management “safely” when the time comes. (So they say. I, never having been on that track, wouldn’t know.) Some of them have entirely different career tracks. Most of the comments don’t distinguish between these in any clear way.

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bianca steele 09.12.13 at 10:10 pm

And the idea of 90% of even good entry-level people going over and above and working 40 hours extra a week during which they don’t have contact with the other members of the group is terrifying.

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Anon 09.12.13 at 10:11 pm

“Nothing was handed me – I earned it and I know others can too.”

http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/free-markets-and-the-myth-of-earned-inequalities/

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Meredith 09.12.13 at 10:19 pm

bianca steele @66 and others way above: I googled pumps and discovered there’s a world of confusion about what the term means but that I was certainly mistaken. Despite all the confusion, this much can be said about “pumps” in the US: it is a generic term that includes every thing from the low, chunkier-heeled shoes I had in mind and high, spiky heels. I wonder if I came to associate pumps with the former because, I think, when I was growing up (1950′s and ’60′s), spiky heels were usually referred to explicitly as spikes, and I incorrectly inferred that pumps and spikes were two species of distinctly heeled shoes, not a genus (pumps) that includes species like chunkies and spikes.
Don’t get me off on the (mis)use of “shift” these days to refer to both sheaths and shifts.
All of this not completely OT: why is a contributor to a place like Duck of Minverva so accepting of norms that oppress women? As it happens, I love shoes (and admire stylish chunkies — those are VERY expensive), but I do not think anyone should be expected to wear 2 1/2, spiky heels all day at work. Or to accept any norms that may oppress all interns.

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bianca steele 09.12.13 at 11:23 pm

Meredith:
I would still be calling them spike heels but I noticed a few years ago no one else was. I would still be calling flip-flops thongs if that wouldn’t get me weird looks.

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adam.smith 09.12.13 at 11:31 pm

@Meredith -for one, this wasn’t written by a contributor at DoM, but by a former student of one who is now employed by one of DC’s security policy shops, which, while probably left of the US center in security policy, doesn’t exactly strike me as a left-wing type of place. But also, the shoes did strike me more as a light-hearted joke than anything else. She likes high-heeled shoes. So does Catharine MacKinnon.

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Adam Bradley 09.13.13 at 2:16 am

Anyone else wondering if the Labor Department has anything to add to this discussion?

Trader Joe (emphasis mine):

An intern’s day falls into two broad categories – doing menial work that lightens the load for an existing employee

This is illegal, unless the intern is earning minimum wage. Otherwise, the rule is that “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.”

Trader Joe:

The benefit of having the intern do these things is that the slightly more experienced employee – who may by now actually have some skills worth using on something more meaningful – is freed up to do such things.

DOL:

If an employer uses interns as substitutes for regular workers or to augment its existing workforce during specific time periods, these interns should be paid at least the minimum wage and overtime compensation for hours worked over forty in a workweek.

Trader Joe:

The #1 payoff for the intern is a job at the place they interned.

DOL:

The internship should be of a fixed duration, established prior to the outset of the internship. Further, unpaid internships generally should not be used by the employer as a trial period for individuals seeking employment at the conclusion of the internship period. If an intern is placed with the employer for a trial period with the expectation that he or she will then be hired on a permanent basis, that individual generally would be considered an employee under the FLSA.

adam.smith:

I think internships taken while you’re studying, three month or less duration and with a significant teaching component are perfectly legit, even if they’re unpaid.

As far as I can tell, these internships are legit, so long as the teaching component is 100% of the internship.

This should not be confusing: if your labor benefits The Man, then The Man owes you a check.

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rea 09.13.13 at 2:22 am

why is a contributor to a place like Duck of Minverva so accepting of norms that oppress women?

High heels are a classic example of Thorstein Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption” concept, with a sexist twist–just like the historic practice of binding the feet of Chinese women. Men gain status when they can afford women who can’t do physical labor.

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derrida derider 09.13.13 at 3:10 am

I reckon its easy to tell which people in this thread are in the sheltered workshop of academia.

Not that academia shouldn’t be a bit sheltered – man does not live by GNP alone and anyway people need space and security to advance knowledge, so it makes sense even for maximising GDP alone. But it does mean that it’s a distinctive workplace fairly sheltered from capitalism’s remorseless economic logic, and the sheltered often do not seem to have the imagination to understand what it is like to be out in that storm (for both employer and employee, BTW), let alone how we could build better shelters from it.

My only objection here is not to the notion of a tournament to allocate very limited and desirable places (wannabe policy wonks are always in massive oversupply – as a career policy analyst I do know how lucky I’ve been), but to the irrational spaces in which the tournament is sometimes played. An employer who judges ANY employee by their taste in shoes or their parents’ assets is just a fool. Unfortunately fools abound, so I’m afraid the article’s advice is probably sound.

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adam.smith 09.13.13 at 3:14 am

As far as I can tell, these internships are legit, so long as the teaching component is 100% of the internship.

right, but that’s not actually very clear cut. E.g. if you do research and write parts of a report and you do get guidance&feedback on the work you do, you can certainly argue that your employer benefits, but also you’re getting exactly the type of practical experience internships are for – i.e. if you want people to learn something, you have to give them meaningful tasks.

Don’t get me wrong, I basically agree with you (and the DOL), but you don’t want to overshoot.

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adam.smith 09.13.13 at 3:19 am

But it does mean that it’s a distinctive workplace fairly sheltered from capitalism’s remorseless economic logic, and the sheltered often do not seem to have the imagination to understand what it is like to be out in that storm

well, or they disagree with the fact that 95% of society should have to live entirely unsheltered. Esping Anderson describes the function of well-working welfare states as de-commodifying labor. I think that’s exactly the point – people’s livelihood shouldn’t be under any type of “remorseless logic,” including an economic one. And TINA isn’t really an argument.

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faustusnotes 09.13.13 at 4:11 am

I think Trader Joe and dsquared need to improve their personnel selection skills, if they can’t find an intern who is able to do anything better than buy coffee. Perhaps some sort of internship in an organization with a functioning human resources department?

I have an intern who does odd jobs for me: data collection and cleaning, some programming and analysis, and the odd bit of translation work. I have to give him training in some of this stuff, but that is why he wanted to be an intern – so he could learn useful stuff. I would never send him out to get a coffee – why would I ask him to do for free something that is of no value to him?

Also, if you’re the kind of person who is impressed when someone spends $300 on a pair of shoes just so that they can come and polish your coffee cup, you’re an oily and sleazy individual.

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bad Jim 09.13.13 at 4:29 am

I have to say, coming from a background of small manufacturing companies, with an emphasis on efficiency and pride in running a lean operation, that the idea of having interns is actually offensive. The workplace ought not to be so slack that it could tolerate the participation of clueless and over-privileged assistants. The presence of interns says something less than complimentary about the nature of the work done in the places that enlist them, perhaps that it’s more a matter of who you are than what you can do.

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Tom Slee 09.13.13 at 4:32 am

bad Jim: Of the hundreds of co-op students who have come through my workplace, I’ve met none who are clueless and very few who are over-privileged. The kids today are all right.

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bad Jim 09.13.13 at 4:53 am

Regarding shoes: someone wrote that she wore athletic shoes while taking the subway and walking to her job, switching to heels when she got to her building, then kicking them off once behind her desk. Eminently sensible and utterly senseless.

Many years ago it was not uncommon to see young teens at the opera with their parents, wearing little black dresses with Doc Martens. It seemed bizarre at first, but then pumps started looking even stranger. My beach town now has two seasons: flip-flops and boots, the more zippers and buckles the better.

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js. 09.13.13 at 5:03 am

bad Jim @81:

As someone who generally finds your comments useful and/or congenial, I’m finding this a bit bizarre. It’s simply not the case that internship as it plays out these days in most US workplaces is about “clueless” headcases or whatever wandering around. I assume you’re familiar with this case/ruling. Structurally, that’s _far_ closer to the reality of contemporary “internship”—it’s a way for management to get their hands on unpaid labor. I don’t at all see how the fact that this unpaid labor, in certain contexts at least, can only be afforded by people who’re already rich, makes any of this any better.

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bad Jim 09.13.13 at 5:06 am

Tom Slee: I was responding to the original post, and had in mind the sorts of places that recruit interns from elite institutions. I have no doubt that interns can benefit from exposure to working environments, and some institutions may well obtain some value in return, but surely it matters what sort of work they do.

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faustusnotes 09.13.13 at 5:15 am

js, a few people are suggesting that interns are clueless. I think bad Jim is responding to them, not making normative statements.

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Meredith 09.13.13 at 5:20 am

In support of Tom Slee @82: I would hazard that often small businesses and such get involved in internship programs with local colleges because their managers are eager not to exploit labor but to “be involved with” and “help” “the young.” Those of us who teach late adolescents/young adults all the time can complain a lot about them (boy, can we!), but mostly we do appreciate how lucky we are to spend so much time and energy with them. (As for energy, I should say “from them.”)

My husband had a long conversation on the phone the other day with a local business person who was very upset that he had had to deliver a report on a student (his first intern) that meant she wouldn’t get course credit for her summer internship with him. This man had had such high hopes — as if we teachers are always having Mr. Chips experiences — and he thought he must have failed somehow. My husband assured him that this particular student was a problem in the classroom, too. (Basically, failing to show up. First rule of life and all that.) Said student the exception rather than the rule, I hasten to add, among the students my husband teaches. But this poor, disappointed local business person/citizen/neighbor, who had only wanted to help and had hoped to be inspired by the energy of youth.

All this distant from my own students’ more la-de-da internships (for which they’ll seldom receive academic credit — only, e.g., if they’re “shadowing” local doctors for a J-term course). But in the end, all these internships should be about the same thing: transmission, tradition, inter-generational support. Which should include financial support, without which not for all the rest.

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bad Jim 09.13.13 at 5:25 am

Since I started out by noting my incredulity, and indeed ignorance, about the sorts of environments that would exploit interns, I ought to back out of my comment in a cloud of apology, and on behalf of my nieces and nephews I’m sorry to have called anyone clueless or overprivileged (although a few of them have taken advantage of their rich uncle).

My point, which may well be wrong, is that certain sorts of companies aren’t set up to exploit interns. Others, evidently, are, and that’s interesting by itself. That’s what I meant with my comment about “who you are, not what you can do”: that in some cases a display of privilege may be, in effect, a job requirement. There’s precedent for that in many prestigious occupations. That’s all I meant to imply.

Oh, and that anyone who tried to clean my coffee cup would have freaked me out.

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Meredith 09.13.13 at 5:53 am

bad Jim, I have been thinking of you as the kind of good local business person my husband was talking to, even if I responded to Tom Slee and you don’t employ interns. (Something in your tone…. Not that your comments are responses to mine.) You are not the problem. The problem, maybe, isn’t individuals — there are lots and lots of good people with good motives and intentions all around. The challenge is effectively mobilizing all those good motives and intentions while avoiding, individually and collectively, the insidious temptations of exploitation, to which we are ALL susceptible.

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js. 09.13.13 at 6:00 am

anyone who tried to clean my coffee cup would have freaked me out

Agreed. Not that I have or would ever have to deal with this sort of situation, for about 5 entirely unrelated reasons.

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Zamfir 09.13.13 at 6:16 am

Perhaps I am naive, but I would guess that the lobbyists from the OP also see their internships as well-intended efforts to train the next generation. With the long work hours and the coffee-mug cleaning as useful lessons in humility, presumably a valuable exercise for rich graduates from elite schools. Also hazing, as DD says. Become one of the the club by being exploited by the club.

For all I know, this really is a good way to train and select new lobbyists, and the interns are getting a good opportunity even at zero pay for long hours. But it still oozes exclusionism.

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Meredith 09.13.13 at 6:22 am

Zamfir, people are trying. You got a specific alternative that can be enacted tomorrow?

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Jake 09.13.13 at 6:44 am

If you have a hundred qualified applicants for a job you’re gonna need some sort of exclusionism, aren’t you? It used to be you needed a family member in the union to get you a job at the plant, now you need a family member who can support you while you work for the movie studio for free. Not sure which is worse.

Once you get into fields where finding good people is difficult then you start seeing internships used as a recruiting tool. Good pay, interesting work, maybe the occasional field trip, all in the hopes that they’ll either come back and accept a full-time job. Or at least tell all their friends that your company is a good place to work.

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bad Jim 09.13.13 at 6:57 am

You’re making me feel worse. In retrospect we could have done more to introduce young people to the particular pleasures of manufacturing.

When we started up the founders had to do everything themselves. There’s nothing edifying about sweeping or washing, and shipping & receiving is pretty much the same, but operating a forklift is actually a lot of fun. I highly recommend it. Wiring might not sound that exciting, but punching down phone lines has its satisfactions, and running cable, climbing all around the warehouse, wasn’t something I’d let someone else do.

That’s mostly vanished, though, gone to China. We probably shouldn’t begrudge it, since they’re doing a pretty good job (occasional horrors notwithstanding) but it makes my experience irrelevant, and not having apprenticed successors less a source of regret.

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faustusnotes 09.13.13 at 7:00 am

I also don’t get the thing about hazing. I’ve never worked anywhere with hazing. Hazing is a disgusting form of bullying. Throwing the concept around as if it is something inevitable that we should formalize in the form of an internship program marks you out as a bully, in my opinion. Someone who wants their bullying to be given institutional approval.

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Phil 09.13.13 at 7:12 am

I’ve never worked anywhere with hazing.

Me neither, but one place where I used to work offered desk jobs to a significant number of blue-collar workers, if they wanted & were up to them (those idealistic, egalitarian 1980s!). I was talking to one guy about the contrast between driving a desk & working on the shop floor, and he said, “I really like it here – it’s so safe!” For a moment I thought he was talking about industrial accidents, but then he said, “Nobody’s out to get you.” Then he and another guy started reminiscing about the treatment meted out to the low man on the totem pole in the warehouse where they used to work. The detail about Shrove Tuesday(!) sticks in my mind – if you were the youngest guy on the team, on Shrove Tuesday you would make yourself very scarce; if your workmates found you, you’d get your balls painted black with boot polish. But it was all good fun, at least if you stood it long enough to be around to do it to the next generation.

It seems like a very male behaviour, in non-obvious as well as obvious ways – if certain kinds of internship are hazing (or hazing-like), they’re unusual in taking place in mixed (and in mostly-female) settings.

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ajay 09.13.13 at 9:08 am

you’re going through a series of menial and unpleasant tasks in order that cognitive dissonance will set in and you will be more loyal to them. It’s a hazing process, like the ones that have been independently discovered by more or less every organised group from the British Army to the Sioux to every trading desk ever.

Sidenote: I have never been a Sioux ( that looks wrong as a singular noun. A Siou? A Sioul?) so can’t comment, but the British Army AFAIK doesn’t do hazing in the sense of deliberately give people menial, unpleasant and pointless tasks to do in order to build camaraderie. Things have moved on from the days of Windsor Davies ordering people to cut lawns with scissors and clean toilets with toothbrushes.
A lot of the training is admittedly unpleasant and does build camaraderie, but it’s necessarily unpleasant: you spend hours tabbing across the Brecon Beacons because being able to tab cross country for hours is actually a useful skill.
For one thing, hazing is a waste of people’s time. For another, it’s a waste of people.

It’s notable that hazing survives in organisations where optimum performance is not quite so critical. If a trader does a really culpably bad job one day, no one dies. Most of the time, no one (except maybe the other people on his desk) even notices. He can steal millions or lose tens of millions without ringing any alarm bells, and nine times out of ten the alarm bells will be ignored. There’s a lot of slack in that system. But the public sector (military and civilian) is doing work that’s rather more important and therefore it has to have a more professional attitude: it can’t afford the sort of slack that hazing implies.

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Sam Clark 09.13.13 at 11:21 am

I think several different issues are getting run together here:

1) Costs and benefits. Is an unpaid internship worth it for the long term payoff? If the people doing it really do plan their lives to maximise expected utility, then they apparently think so. But that doesn’t make them correct. It’d be interesting to know how many of them actually end up as lobbyists.

2) Good and bad jobs. Is an unpaid internship a bad job in itself? The question in (1) assumes so: dues-paying is unhappy, or it isn’t dues-paying. And there are obvious ways in which it is bad: to be a low-status supplicant is to be vulnerable to all sorts of bullying, exploitation, and worse. The ways in which it might be good perhaps include the excitement of being around powerful people.

3) Equality of opportunity. Opportunity to be an intern is made (even) less equal by not paying interns, because it means that those without trust-funds and connections either can’t do the internship at all, or can only do it under conditions (working another job ’til 2am) which make them much less likely to get the full benefits.

4) Justice. It’s at least not obvious that our work and social world ought to be organised into hierarchies such that a few positions bring power, status, wealth, and enjoyment, and far more other positions bring subordination, contempt, poverty and grind.

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Tom Slee 09.13.13 at 11:27 am

bad Jim: clarification accepted and sorry for misinterpreting.

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Trader Joe 09.13.13 at 11:36 am

“If a trader does a really culpably bad job one day, no one dies. Most of the time, no one (except maybe the other people on his desk) even notices. He can steal millions or lose tens of millions without ringing any alarm bells, and nine times out of ten the alarm bells will be ignored. There’s a lot of slack in that system.”

This is so absolutely not true I don’t know where to begin. If a trader “loses millions” death would be a more efficient process than the actual routine which plays out over months.

A trader is meant to close his book ‘flat’ (defined by each organization) or positive every day. If there’s an exception it better involve a market crash. The control system is fundamentally broken if that isn’t the case and I promise you, in any regulated broker dealer (i.e. outside of some small hedge funds) the alarm bells are not ignored.

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Barry 09.13.13 at 11:59 am

Trader Joe, please forgive us if we don’t share your efficient market view of finance.

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bianca steele 09.13.13 at 12:59 pm

faustusnotes @ 80
But you have something to teach him, above and beyond how to do personal services for the person he works for. If your job was getting things for your boss so he could do projects without worrying about trivialities, it would make sense for you to delegate your own trivialities so you could perform your boss’s and still get your projects done. (In defense of things getting coffee, though, it might get the intern away from his desk and in a position to say hi to people besides you.)

Maybe a better movie than “The Devil Wears Prada” is “Reality Bites.” If that movie were made today, Winona Ryder’s character would be an unpaid intern (and that would screw up the whole “my boss is a jerk but at least I have a career, I don’t work at the Gap” dynamic). I agree with those who’ve said above that the debate is skewed by the fact that journalists and the media generally are struggling with their own intern problems, which aren’t quite the same as in other fields.

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ajay 09.13.13 at 1:37 pm

100: Trader Joe, that would be nice but it just ain’t the case. See the recent trials of, for example, Kweku Adoboli and Jerome Kerviel. Those guys were losing millions with no one noticing. They were ringing alarms almost weekly that were ignored: Kerviel triggered (IIRC) 93 separate alerts, none of which were properly acted on. Those guys were not working at minor banks – they were at UBS and SG, both leading banks. The control system at those banks, and at many others, was indeed “fundamentally broken”. But, because what they were doing had such minor real-world consequences, it was able to continue for years at a time in that state; had they been air traffic controllers, someone would have noticed rather sooner that things were amiss, because they’d have seen the columns of black smoke rising from scattered sites all around the perimeter of London Heathrow Airport.

You may think you’re in a well-controlled, well-regulated industry. Maybe your bit of it actually is. But the industry-wide picture is very different.

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Trader Joe 09.13.13 at 2:06 pm

@103

A) The examples you cite are under EU control systems. Your generalizations were far more sweeping. If you mean to cite EU control practices than do so.

B) The Adoboli case was accounting fraud – the system would have worked but he actively circumvented it. Clearly an imperfect system, but to suggest alarm bells were igorned or didn’t go off is the equivalent of saying a burglar alarm was faulty since it wasn’t attached to power.

C) Kerviel the facts have been made murky. Its quite likely you have a point in this instance but it hardly justifies a sweeping assertion such as you made: “Most of the time, no one (except maybe the other people on his desk) even notices. He can steal millions or lose tens of millions without ringing any alarm bells, and nine times out of ten the alarm bells will be ignored. ” More like 1 time in millions the alarm bells were ignored.

Madoff is another example of where existing controls were elaborately circumvented. Its impossible to say fraud doesn’t happen it always has and always will – but to frame this in the context widespread “ignoring of alarm bells” is just pure falsehood. There would be no financial system if it was even vaguely true.

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ajay 09.13.13 at 2:18 pm

A) I love the “those don’t count, they happened in (sniff) Europe” argument. Sorry, that one won’t work.

B) “It’s a great control system! It only fails to work when people try to avoid it!” HAHAHAHAHA no. On that basis my house is safe from burglars thanks to the large PLEASE DO NOT BURGLE THIS HOUSE sign outside, which will work perfectly as a defence unless some blighter tries to actively circumvent it.

C) If someone can ring 92 alarm bells with nothing happening, and only get a reaction on the 93rd, then p(alarm is ignored) is probably rather larger than one in a million.

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ajay 09.13.13 at 2:19 pm

to frame this in the context widespread “ignoring of alarm bells” is just pure falsehood. There would be no financial system if it was even vaguely true.

Why, if that was true, then surely the financial system would have undergone some sort of massive crisis by now!

107

Metatone 09.13.13 at 2:28 pm

Trader Joe’s position I think misses the point, which is that internships may be well used in his industry, but still used badly in others.

And particularly, the concern is that the structure of internships in the policy industry contributes to the groupthink in that industry – via the exclusionary selection of people who can’t afford to be unpaid (and indeed, put in so many hours that a second job is impractical.)

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MPAVictoria 09.13.13 at 2:30 pm

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Trader Joe 09.13.13 at 2:40 pm

@105
Thanks for the thoughtful rebuttal ajay. I’m sure the Daily Mail has it right and the legions of people at the SEC, Federal reserve and 22 other organizations which oversee different parts of trading platforms are all clueless and the tens of thousands of folks are nothing but Viking plunderers with keyboards. That seems a correct conclusion.

@108 You’re absolutely correct that this example is an aggregious abuse of an unpaid internship and the company involved should rightly be punished.

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ajay 09.13.13 at 2:46 pm

109: the regulators – both in the real world and in Europe – have spent the last five years jumping up and down about massive industry-wide failures of risk management and internal controls. Haven’t you noticed?

111

Ronan(rf) 09.13.13 at 2:48 pm

“Trader Joe’s position I think misses the point, which is that internships may be well used in his industry, but still used badly in others.”

I think its clear enough that they arent well used in his industry though, if they’re used to send someone to get coffee. Whatever happened to the days when someone used to be paid to run to the shops, make the tea etc? That was/is a real genuine job, all thats happened is theyve undercut it with free labour
At the very least these days most places deliver for bulk orders

112

ajay 09.13.13 at 2:49 pm

I mean, it really takes a particularly hard-boiled sort of self-satisfaction to sit here, in the real world, in 2013, and say “of course the financial system’s internal controls are working perfectly. Of course the regulators have done a sterling job. Of course all the traders know what they’re doing and have only the highest motives”.

113

Trader Joe 09.13.13 at 3:20 pm

Ahhh. Now I see. You understand that there is a difference between trading and banking right? Just because both things happen in the same building doesn’t make them the same. If you think the financial crisis was caused by trading you’re not really on the right page. Since you seem to be more interested in making hyperbolic reactionary comments than trying to understand the difference, I’ll just leave it there.

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hix 09.13.13 at 8:05 pm

Just be happy, you dont have 1 year mandatory unpaid internships (with no usefull jobs to do, not comperable at all to the vocational training system) built into the applied science college track in Germany -_-.

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MPAVictoria 09.13.13 at 8:29 pm

“reactionary”
That word…. I do not think it means what you think it means.

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Don N. 09.13.13 at 8:49 pm

In my thirty years of professional experience tech interns are typically well-paid and are often given productive, valuable, experience. I was years into my career before realizing that in other industries interns are often unpaid and given crap jobs. Occasionally, I’ve seen managers hire interns to get around head count numbers, etc. but that isn’t the common experience. I have hired and supervised lots of interns, and most got work experience relevant to their thesis or intended professional area. Many got papers published. There are lots of shitty things about tech industry hiring practices and work environment (i.e. pervasive sexism) but this is one area where we seem to do things right. I just don’t get why unpaid internships aren’t just crushed legally.

Don N.

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djr 09.13.13 at 9:45 pm

Trader Joe @ 113:
Adoboli and Kerviel were traders employed by banks, though. More widely, didn’t the lack of a clear dividing line between different types of activity in the financial sector make 2008 much worse than it could have been?

118

bxg 09.14.13 at 2:44 am

Reading the comments, I am appalled to see the casual acceptance of the very existence of jobs as “policy intern” “policy analyst” “policy elites” in a “policy industry”. People here seem to be bemoaning the current intern structure, at least in some areas such as this, and suggesting the desirability of significant structural changes. O.k., so be it, but if we are going to entertain the idea of big changes, then the bigger problem is some young masters studenta (whether poor or rich) thinking “I’d like to contribute to society by becoming a _policy analyst_ in DC, and interning gets me on that career path”. This seems, IMHO, deeply pernicious no matter how unbiased the process is.

Go and do something with your life. Business, charity, tech skills, win elections, academia, writing, influence, academia, indeed, any manner of things – society should use these help decide whether you influence _policy_. Not your internship strategy (or access to it) – unless the path is to a inconsequential role.

Sure, if internship practices at policy shops influence actual US policy then it’s a good thing to dream about changes that make these practices more open, but if you are dreaming why not dream about fixing the greater evil by far. IMO.

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emi 09.15.13 at 7:49 am

There is another real loss in having a menial get coffee (even more so if the senior staff get menials to get coffee) and that is the chance to talk to that person who you couldn’t get a real meeting with in the line!

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reason 09.16.13 at 8:45 am

@118
Yes, well said.

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